Addenda

12 Jun

The restless vanity of the untrammeled self

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/12/21

Sociologist Daniel Bell on the rise of “the idea that experience in and of itself was the supreme value”

In the winter of 1969–70, sociologist Daniel Bell (1919–2011) wrote an essay called “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.” Portions of the essay were soon published in The Public Interest, a journal then edited by Bell and Irving Kristol. That essay later became Chapter 1 in a book with the same title, published in 1976. The “contradiction” in the title referred to the tension between the limits — the demands and disciplines — necessary for economic productivity in modern societies, and the celebration of the promises of unlimited pleasures available in the goods on offer to modern consumers.

In retrospect, “paradoxes” may be a better word to describe this tension than “contradictions,” since even the production side of a capitalist economy requires entrepreneurs who are motivated by the dream of new possibilities that break old molds. Behind the innovative energy of the entrepreneur and the hedonistic restlessness of the consumer, Bell recognized a common drive: the modern creation ex nihilo of the autonomous self. He even uses the term “idolatry of the self” to identify the organizing principle in modern societies.

Bell’s description of the logic of consumer capitalism helps to explain a phenomenon that many have found perplexing: the active sympathy of many modern corporations with various progressive social causes. Below are some excerpts from the Introduction to The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

“The fundamental assumption of modernity, the thread that has run through Western civilization since the sixteenth century, is that the social unit of society is not the group, the guild, the tribe, or the city, but the person. The Western ideal was the autonomous man who, in becoming self-determining, would achieve freedom. With this ‘new man’ there was a repudiation of institutions (the striking result of the Reformation, which installed individual conscience as the source of judgment); the opening of new geographical and social frontiers; the desire, and the growing ability, to master nature and to make of oneself what one can, and even, in discarding old roots, to remake oneself altogether. What began to count was not the past but the future.

“This is expressed in a twofold development. In the economy, there arises the bourgeois entrepreneur. Freed from the ascriptive ties of the traditional world, with its fixed status and checks on acquisition, he seeks his fortune by remaking the economic world. Free movement of goods and money and individual economic and social mobility become the ideal. At its extreme, laissez-faire becomes ‘rampant individualism.’ In the culture, we have the rise of the independent artist, released from church and princely patron, writing and painting what pleases him rather than his sponsor; the market will make him free. In the development of culture, this search for independence, the will to be free not only of patron but of all conventions, finds its expression in modernism and, in its extreme form, in the idea of the untrammeled self.

“The impulse driving both the entrepreneur and the artist is a restlessness to search out the new, to rework nature, and to refashion consciousness. As Marx wrote, in an almost hyperbolic paean to the bourgeoisie in The Communist Manifesto:

“‘The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces that have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor? . . .

“‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. . . . All fixed, fast, frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane, and man is at last compelled to face with his sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.’

“For the artist, the restless vanity of the untrammeled self is best expressed by Byron, whose impetuous romanticism imprinted itself on the page:

“‘The great object of life is Sensation — to feel that we exist — even though in pain — it is this “craving void” which drives us to Gaming — to Battle — to Travel — to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.’

“Both impulses, historically, were aspects of the same sociological surge of modernity. Together they opened up the Western world in a radical way. Yet the extraordinary paradox is that each impulse then became highly conscious of the other, feared the other, and sought to destroy it. Radical in economics, the bourgeoisie became conservative in morals and cultural taste. The bourgeois economic impulse was organized into a highly restrictive character structure whose energies were channeled into the production of goods and into a set of attitudes toward work that feared instinct, spontaneity, and vagrant impulse. In the extreme Puritanism of America, laws were passed to constrain intemperate behavior, while in painting and literature bourgeois taste ran to the heroic and banal.

“The cultural impulse — I take Baudelaire as its exemplary figure — thus turned into rage against bourgeois values. ‘To be a useful man has always appeared to me as something quite hideous,’ Baudelaire declared. Utility, rationalism, and materialism were barren, and the bourgeois had no spiritual life and no excesses. The ‘cruel implacable regularity’ of industry was what the modern business house had created: ‘Mechanization will have . . . Americanized us, Progress will have well atrophied us, our entire spiritual part. . . .’

“What is striking is that while bourgeois society introduced a radical individualism in economics, and a willingness to tear up all traditional social relations in the process, the bourgeois class feared the radical experimental individualism of modernism in the culture. Conversely, the radical experimentalists in the culture, from Baudelaire to Rimbaud to Alfred Jarry, were willing to explore all dimensions of experience, yet fiercely hated bourgeois life. . . .

“In the history of bourgeois society, a number of sociological ‘crossovers’ took place which radically transformed both the cultural and economic realms. In the culture there was a radical change in the meaning of the individual from a being to a self. Of equal import, there was a shift from the hold of restraint to the acceptance of impulse. In the economy, there was a crucial change in the character of the motivations which lead a man to work and to relate himself positively and negatively to work.

“Classical philosophy had a metaphysical theology, as [Arthur] Lovejoy puts it, which thought of beings that had a nature, and therefore a common quality. As Plato wrote in the Timaeus, ‘a “good” being must be free from “envy,” that that which is more perfect necessarily engenders, or overflows into, that which is less perfect, and cannot “remain within itself.”’ There was a hierarchy of virtue, in which the lower derived from the higher. But in the modern consciousness, there is not a common being but a self, and the concern of this self is with its individual authenticity, its unique, irreducible character free of the contrivances and conventions, the masks and hypocrisies, the distortions of the self by society. This concern with the authentic self makes the motive and not the action — the impact on the self, not the moral consequence to society — the source of ethical and aesthetic judgments.

“But the larger context was the crossover from religion to secular culture in the way expressive conduct is handled in modern society. In the history of society, particularly of Western society, there has always been a dialectic of release and restraint. We find in the great historical religions a fear of the demonic, of human nature unchecked. And these religions have been religions of restraint. The shift to release occurs with the breakup of religious authority in the mid-nineteenth century. In effect, the culture — particularly modernist culture — took over the relation with the demonic. But instead of taming it, as religion tried to do, the secular culture (art and literature) began to accept it, explore it, and revel in it, coming to see it as a source of creativity. In the cry for the autonomy of the aesthetic, there arose the idea that experience in and of itself was the supreme value, that everything was to be explored, anything was to be permitted — at least to the imagination, if not acted out in life. In the legitimation of action, the pendulum had swung to the side of release, away from restraint.”

21 May

Desire desires desire

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/21/21

Zygmunt Bauman on being a consumer in a consumer society

“Our postmodern society is a consumer society. When we call it a consumer society, we have in mind something more than the trivial and sedate circumstance that all members of that society are consumers — all human beings, and not just human beings, have been consumers since time immemorial. What we do have in mind is that ours is a ‘consumer society’ in the similarly profound and fundamental sense in which the society of our predecessors, modern society and its industrial phase, used to be a ‘producer society.’ That older type of modern society once engaged its members primarily as producers and soldiers; society shaped its members by dictating the need to play those two roles, and the norm that society held up to its members was the ability and the willingness to play them. In the present late-modern ([Anthony] Giddens), second-modern ([Ulrich] Beck), or postmodern stage, modern society has little need for mass industrial labor and conscript armies, but it needs — and engages — its members in their capacity as consumers.

“The role that our present-day society holds up to its members is the role of the consumer, and the members of our society are likewise judged by their ability and willingness to play that role. The difference between our present-day society and its immediate predecessor is not as radical as abandoning one role and picking up another instead. In neither of its two stages could modern society do without its members producing things to be consumed, and members of both do, of course, consume. The consumer of a consumer society, however, is a sharply different creature from the consumer of any other society thus far. The difference is one of emphasis and priorities — a shift of emphasis that makes an enormous difference to virtually every aspect of society, culture, and individual life. The differences are so deep and multiform that they fully justify speaking of our society as a society of a separate and distinct kind — a consumer society.

“Ideally, all acquired habits should ‘lie on the shoulders’ of that new type of consumer just like the ethically inspired vocational and acquisitive passions used to lie, as Max Weber repeated after Richard Baxter, ‘on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment”.’ And the habits are indeed continually, daily, and at first opportunity thrown aside, and never given the chance to firm up into the iron bars of a cage (except one meta-habit: the ‘habit of changing habits’). Ideally, nothing should be embraced by a consumer firmly, nothing should command a commitment forever, and no needs should be seen as fully satisfied, no desires considered ultimate. There ought to be a proviso ‘until further notice’ attached to any oath of loyalty and any commitment. It is the volatility, the inbuilt temporality of all engagements that counts, and counts more than the commitment itself, which is not allowed to outlast the time necessary for consuming the object of desire (or the desirability of that object) anyway.

“That all consumption takes time is in fact the bane of the consumer society and a major worry for the merchandisers of consumer goods. The consumer’s satisfaction ought to be instant and this in a double sense. Consumed goods should bring satisfaction immediately, requiring no learning of skills and no lengthy groundwork, but the satisfaction should end the moment the time needed for consumption is up, and that time ought to be reduced to a bare minimum. The needed reduction is best achieved if consumers cannot hold their attention nor focus their desire on any object for long; if they are impatient, impetuous, and restive; and above all if they are easily excitable and predisposed to quickly lose interest. Indeed, when the waiting is taken out of wanting and the wanting out of waiting, the consumptive capacity of consumers may be stretched far beyond the limits set by any natural or acquired needs or designed by the physical endurability of the objects of desire. The traditional relationship between needs and their satisfaction is then reversed: the promise and hope of satisfaction precedes the need promised to be satisfied and will be always greater than the extant need — yet not too great to preclude the desire for the goods that carry that promise.

“As a matter of fact, the promise is all the more attractive the less the need in question is familiar; there is a lot of fun in living through an experience one did not know existed. The excitement of a new and unprecedented sensation — not the greed of acquiring and possessing, nor wealth in its material, tangible sense — is the name of the consumer game. Consumers are first and foremost gatherers of sensations; they are collectors of things only in the secondary and derivative sense. As Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarinen put it, ‘Desire does not desire satisfaction. To the contrary, desire desires desire.’ Such is the case with the ideal consumer. The prospect of the desire fading off, dissipating, and having nothing in sight to resurrected, or the prospect of a world with nothing left in it to be desired, must be the most sinister of the ideal consumer’s horror (and, of course, of the consumer-goods merchandiser’s horrors).

“To increase their capacity for consumption, consumers must never be left to rest. They need to be constantly exposed to new temptations to keep them in the state of perpetual suspicion and steady disaffection. The bait commanding them to shift attention needs to confirm the suspicion while offering a way out of disaffection: ‘You reckoned you’d seen it all? You ain’t seen nothing yet!’ It is often said that the consumer market seduces its customers. But in order to do so, it needs customers who want to be seduced (just as to command his laborers, the factory boss needed a crew with the habits of discipline and command-following firmly entrenched). In a properly working consumer society, consumers seek actively to be seduced. They live from attraction to attraction, from temptation to temptation — each attraction and each temptation being somewhat different and perhaps stronger than its predecessor. In many ways they are just like their fathers, the producers, who lived from one turn of the conveyor belt to an identical next.

“This cycle of desire is a compulsion, a must, for the fully fledged, mature consumer; yet that must, that internalized pressure, that impossibility of living one’s life in any other way, is seen as the free exercise of one’s will. The market might have already selected them as consumers and so taken away their freedom to ignore its blandishments, but in every successive visit to the marketplace, consumers have every reason to feel that they are the ones in command. They are the judges, the critics, and the choosers. They can, after all, refuse their allegiance to any one of the infinite choices on display — except the choice of choosing among them.

“It is the combination of the consumer, constantly greedy for new attractions and fast bored with attractions already had, and of the world in all its dimensions — economic, political, personal — transformed after the pattern of the consumer market and, like that market, ready to oblige and change its attractions with ever-accelerating speed, that wipes out all fixed signposts from an individual map of the world or from the plans for a life itinerary. Indeed, traveling hopefully is in this situation much better than to arrive. Arrival has that musty smell of the end of the road, that bitter taste of monotony and stagnation that signals the end to everything for which the ideal consumer lives and considers the sense of living. To enjoy the best this world has to offer, you may do all sorts of things except one: to declare, after Goethe’s Faust: ‘O moment, you are beautiful, last forever!’”

— from Zygmunt Bauman, “Tourists and Vagabonds: Or, Living in Postmodern Times,” in Identity and Social Change, edited by Joseph E. Davis (Transaction Publishers, 2000). Bauman was interviewed on Volume 48 of the Journal, discussing his book, Liquid Modernity (Polity Press, 2000).

21 May

“. . . improvising a raft after shipwreck . . . ”

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/21/21

Gil Bailie on symptoms and sources of the postmodern self adrift 

The term “identity crisis” first appeared in the work of psychologist Erik Ericson (1902–1994). It described the struggle most people experience during adolescence to answer the existential questions, “Who am I? Who can I be?” In Ericson’s view, these are perennial human questions. But they are, of course, asked and answered differently in different cultural settings.

For decades, numerous psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and theologians have reflected on how some assumptions about human nature and human identity become more plausible than others as social, political, and economic conditions change. Many Church leaders have long recognized that even the most thoughtful account of human personhood — grounded in biblical and careful theological reflection— will be treated with suspicion by their contemporaries if the picture it presents doesn’t match what their cultural experience has predisposed them to accept. 

Within what was once “Christendom,” dominant assumptions about human identity were long shaped by Christian concepts. But the various forces of modernity and hyper-modernity displaced or rejected the Christian framework, creating a culture-wide “identity crisis” that requires intellectual and pastoral attention. “Who am I?” and “Who can I be?” are questions that require a theological anthropology that courageously challenges the dominant account of human nature.

Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, issued by the Second Vatican Council, has prompted continuing reflection on the differences between Christian understanding of human experience and that promoted — explicitly and implicitly — in modern societies. In a paper titled “The Subject of Gaudium et Spes: Reclaiming a Christocentric Anthropology of the Human Person,” theologian Gil Bailie describes how the Patristic use of the word “person” to describe some aspects of the mystery of the Trinity “laid the groundwork for a revolution in human self-understanding.” But, like many others, Bailie believes that much more can be built on that long-standing foundation, and that current social and political confusions are evidence of the need for such construction. 

The Abstract that summarized his paper began: “Beneath the surface of many of the disturbing moral, political, cultural problems now looming is the growing incidence of what Henri de Lubac called the diminution of ‘ontological density,’ a spiritual distress that Hans Urs von Balthasar characterized as the ‘loss of ontological moorings.’ The modern self, fashioned according to Cartesian presuppositions which vastly inflated its capacity for social autonomy, is succumbing to pathologies intrinsic to the anthropological fallacies upon which it was premised. The attenuation of the Christian revelation that gave personal existence its theological underpinnings and cultural sustenance is having a devastating effect, especially on the young. No response to the political, cultural, and moral confusions of our time will succeed if it does not address this underlying problem.”

Later in the paper, Bailie summarized the descriptions of our social and personal condition offered two social analysts who describe our plight but offer no alternatives:

“The spiritual, psychological, and increasingly ontological predicament in which many — especially the young — are today living has been disturbingly captured by Kenneth Gergen [in The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (Basic Books, 1991)] and made all the more distressing by his effort to remain sanguine in the face of it. Like Freud, however, Gergen and a few of his postmodern contemporaries, provide an inestimable service by insightfully surveying social and psychological phenomena they have nevertheless analyzed so inadequately. The lived experience of the postmodern self, Gergen seems happy to announce, is multiphrenia. He writes: 

“‘As one casts out to sea in the contemporary world, modernist moorings are slowly left behind. It becomes increasingly difficult to recall precisely to what core essence one must remain true. The ideal of authenticity frays about the edges; the meaning of sincerity slowly lapses into indeterminacy. And with this sea change, the guilt of self-violation also recedes. As the guilt and sense of superficiality recede from view, one is simultaneously readied for the emergence of a pastiche personality. The pastiche personality is a social chameleon, constantly borrowing bits and pieces of identity from whatever sources are available and constructing them as useful or desirable in a given situation.’

“Like so many postmodern apologists, Mr. Gergen — having diagnosed a self-dissolution that coincides with the loss of Christian sources of hope — must try as best he can to remain cheerful. Now perfectly unencumbered by the modern quest for what de Lubac termed ‘static sincerity,’ the postmodern accommodates to his life as a de-centered ‘social chameleon,’ taking bits and pieces at random from the incessant parade of mimetic models to which he is exposed. ‘If one’s identity is properly managed, the rewards can be substantial,’ Gergen strains to assure his readers: ‘the devotion of one’s intimates, happy children, professional success, the achievement of community goals, personal popularity, and so on.’ All this is possible, he imagines, ‘if one avoids looking back to locate a true and enduring self, and simply acts to full potential in the moment at hand.’ Avoiding this glance backward — the glance that might awaken that blissfully dormant ‘guilt of self-violation’ and its accompanying ‘sense of superficiality’ — is what another postmodern apologist, the indefatigable Norman O. Brown, calls ‘improvising a raft after shipwreck,’ the shoring up of fragments against one’s ruin. 

“In his Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis Professor Brown managed to sustain the hyperbolic prose and the erudite impudence for which his books in the 1960s were famous. The result is one of the strangest and most candid paeans to the postmodern spiritual catastrophe extant, but one, like Gergen’s, rich in anthropological insight massively misdiagnosed. Brown starts with a definition of psychological identification that might have been written by René Girard and adopted for use by the Church in the now urgent task of recovering a reinvigorated hagiographic catechesis. Psychological identity, Brown writes, is the ‘process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect, property or attribute of the other and is transformed, wholly or partially, after the model the other provides.’ It is, in other words, ‘sympathy intensified to the point of reproduction’ but within the permissible spectral range, whereas clinical hysteria is an involuntary and unwelcomed experience of mimetic influenced, warded off by a repertoire of strategies which comprise the disease symptomatology. But all that professor Brown can do with this immensely fruitful insight is to turn it into just another rough beast slouching toward the local mall or web browser to be fed and famished. . . .

“Those clinically diagnosed as hysterics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries inhabited societies more structured and less fluid than those of today. Individuals were expected to retain a higher degree of psychological continuity, and the failure to do so tended to draw more attention than the corresponding failure today, when identities morph far more routinely and arouse considerably less clinical scrutiny or social concern. The cultural institution that has facilitated this more psychologically fluid situation is the market. Just as there is something to be said for aspiring to a degree of social autonomy — it is necessary in order to resist the gravitational power of collective hysteria, the mob phenomenon — so there is something to be said for the collaborative construct of material need and mimetic desire, of social restlessness and psychological tenuousness, for which the market provides a venue and an outlet. The economic value of the market cannot be disputed, and its globalizing tendency, while problematic to some extent, may effect more long-term reconciliation between peoples and cultures than the transnational institutions explicitly dedicated to these things. As Gaudium et spes observed, however, ‘the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on one another,’ and in a world where market forces are congenial to the loss of both social and psychological cohesion, material improvements are accompanied by a spiritual pathos far less easy to measure or meliorate. Whereas the modern self was adapted to and fostered by the majoritarian voluntarism of a democratic polity, the disaggregated and atomized postmodern self is adapted to and shaped by the consumptive voluntarism most congenial to the now all-encompassing market, and ever at the mercy of the political and moral edicts that emanate from it. It may well be the case that it is the availability of the market — as the repository of desire and the ritual arena where disappointed desires can be easily and quickly recycled into new desires — that has caused clinical cases of hysteria to disappear into a sea of subclinical episodes. Had those suffering from the ontological deprivations of late modernity and postmodernity not had the market available to them these deprivations may well have manifested themselves more explicitly as psychopathology. The market facilitates the routine and incremental forms of self-transformation for which material acquisitions and their short-lived exhilarations function in quasi-sacramental ways.”

As of this writing, Gil Bailie is in the process of completing a book with the working title, The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self: Recovering the Christian Mystery of Personhood. The concerns expressed in the paper excerpted above will be developed more fully in that book, and I hope he and I can talk about the book when it is published. 

6 May

Discovering inherited metaphysical commitments

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/06/21

Andrew Davison on the importance for theology of becoming more philosophically self-conscious

On Volume 150 of the Journal, I talked with Andrew Davison about his book Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics. During that conversation, he mentioned an earlier book that he had written, The Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy for Theologians (2013). The Introduction to that book is titled “Why Study Philosophy?” In it, Davison writes:

“The Scriptures warn us not to be ‘taken captive’ through philosophy (Col. 2.8; cf. 1 Cor. 1.20–25). As an aid to achieving that end, this book makes a counter-intuitive proposal: our theology is less likely to be hijacked by philosophy if we pay attention to philosophy. We can be more philosophical in order to be more theological.

“We all operate within a philosophical framework. Philosophy, in this sense, is the position a person, culture or school of thought takes over what reality looks like and how its aspects fit together. Define philosophy this way, and every last person is a philosopher, and every last person has a philosophy. Everyone has a sense of how to think about time, knowledge, causation, justice and so on. There is an ‘architecture’ to the mind. As John Stuart Mill put it, the mind has ‘furniture’. We may not be able to articulate these assumptions in any systematic way, but we have assumptions nonetheless. By and large, English-speaking cultures do not provide much space for us to think about these matters. It would be different if we lived in France or Iran, two countries where philosophy is prized and philosophical books sell in large quantities.

“The Christian theologian will want his or her framework to reflect a Christian vision of the world, and unexamined philosophical presuppositions determine our outlook even more than examined ones. Unexamined presuppositions are the ones that it does not cross our mind to question. Fergus Kerr has described the consequences:

“‘if theologians proceed in the belief that they need neither examine nor even acknowledge their inherited metaphysical commitments, they will simply remain prisoners of whatever philosophical school was in the ascendant 30 years earlier, when they were first-year students’ [from Theology after Wittgenstein, SPCK, 1997].

“‘When the existence of metaphysical commitments is ignored or denied, as Kerr goes on, ‘their grip only tightens.’ I can think of two theological books, whose titles I shall pass over, where the clinching move in the argument comes straight from Hegel. The author’s conclusion, ultimately, does not rest on theological sources but upon Hegel’s conviction that a cycle of tension and resolution lies in the heart of things. Neither author wrote ‘as Hegel would say’ as part of his argument. Indeed, if either had, he might have questioned whether Hegel’s metaphysics should be given such sway.

“This book takes a historical approach. Familiarity with the history of philosophy is useful, if only as a reminder that ideas have a history. However much an outlook today appears obvious to us, it has a heritage. At other times, people thought otherwise, and because we each receive our philosophical heritage in a different way, other people will think otherwise even in our own time.

“We cannot take ourselves outside of philosophical tradition, if for no other reason then that we cannot get outside of language. In the words of Michael Polanyi: ‘The practice of speech in one particular language carries with it the acceptance of the particular theory of the universe postulated by the language.’ We can, however, think critically about where we stand and what we take for granted. Polanyi’s comment need not be fatalistic. ‘Language’ here means something more specific than English, French or Lithuanian. We can all ‘learn to watch our language’, so that ‘our metaphysical inclinations are laid bare’, to quote Kerr again, and start to refine it where necessary. We will do that when our philosophy is prayed through alongside readings from the great theologians, mystics and activists of Christian history. Theology can bend our philosophy into new shapes. This is part of taking ‘every thought captive Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:5).”

6 May

Questioning the world’s assumptions down to their very roots

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/06/21

John Milbank on the need for a more robust apologetics

On Volume 115, of the Journal, I interviewed theologian Andrew Davison about his 2011 book Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition (Baker Academic). One of the things he talked about was how he persuaded John Milbank to write the foreword to the book. That foreword bears the title “An Apology for Apologetics.” In it, Milbank notes that apologetics “has come to mean a theologically secondary exercise: not an exposition of the faith, but the defence of the faith on grounds other than faith — on one’s opponent’s territory, where one risks remaining in a weak or even a false position. The best that such a posture can hope to achieve would be the occasional demonstration that one’s adversary has somehow missed the authentic wider ground of her own standing. But calling this very standing into doubt would appear to be beyond the apologetic remit.

“For these reasons apologetics often fell into disfavor within twentieth-century theology. Instead, what was recommended was an authentic exposition of faith, capable of persuading the non-believer to start to inhabit the alternative world which that exposition can invoke. In this light apologetics appeared to be a compromised exercise, unlikely in any case to succeed. And yet, the latter assumption was belied by the wide popular reach of some apologetic writing, most notably that of C. S. Lewis — the sign of the success of his Screwtape Letters being that they were often much admired even by those whom they did not convince.”

Milbank goes on to ask whether it was ever correct to assume that apologetics should have a secondary and deferential role. “Perhaps the exposition of faith always includes an apologetic dimension?” Perhaps “any successful exercise of apologetics, like indeed that of Lewis, must contain a strong confessional element which convinces precisely because it persuades through the force of an imaginative presentation of belief. . . .

“Instead of . . . a falsely ‘neutral’ approach (and one can think here of the folly of much ‘science and religion’ debate in our own day) which accepts without question the terms and terminology of this world, we need a mode of apologetics prepared to question the world’s assumptions down to their very roots and to expose how they lie within paganism, heterodoxy or else an atheism with no ground in reason and a tendency to deny the ontological reality of reason altogether. . . .

“[W]hile the truths of the Creation, the Incarnation, the Trinity and of Grace are replete of themselves, they complete and safeguard rather than destroy our sense of natural order and human dignity. This means that they themselves presume such a defence [as is offered on behalf of revealed doctrines], and therefore that belief in these supernatural truths cannot survive the threatened collapse of the ordinary and perennial human belief in soul, mind and will, and its intuition of a teleological purposiveness in all existing things.

“For this reason today apologetics, which is to say Christian theology as such, faces the integral task of at once defending the faith and also of defending a true politics of civic virtue (rooted in Platonic and Aristotelian assumptions), besides a renewed metaphysics of cosmic hierarchy and participatory order.

“Yet today also we have a more specific sense that such a metaphysics was lost through an assumption that the only ‘reason’ which discloses truth is a cold, detached reason that is isolated from both feeling and imagination, as likewise from both narrative and ethical evaluation. Christian apologetics now needs rather to embrace the opposite assumption that our most visionary and ideal insights can most disclose the real, provided that this is accompanied by a widening in democratic scope of our sympathies for the ordinary, and the capacities and vast implications of the quotidian — like the road running outside our house which beckons to endless unknown vistas.”

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