The Postliberal Moment
Something has changed. As the flurry of recent articles and books on liberalism and its discontents attests, the stability of the intellectual framework through which American Catholics have made sense of our place in modern society seems to have been lost. We find ourselves disoriented and looking for stable ground but discover on all sides simply more shifting sand. The tone and content of political discourse is no longer compatible with a Christian sensibility, our social doctrine is increasingly irreconcilable with the interpretations of economic reality on offer, and what is far worse, our ecclesiology of love and communion bears little resemblance to our widespread experiences of corruption, fragmentation, and loneliness. Little by little, the hoops that we’re asked to jump through in order to remain in the mainstream have been moved higher and farther away until we’re not so sure the leaps are worth the effort, or, in honesty, the humiliation. It is not an exaggeration, I think, to describe the situation as a crisis, and as is appropriate to such a moment, we are again asking fundamental questions surrounding the proper relationship between Church and State, between religious and secular pursuits, between morality and politics, and it seems that as far as potential answers go, just about everything is back on the table.
Nevertheless, the categories of liberal discourse have largely remained intact. We argue about the boundaries between Church and State, but rarely consider the possibility that these categories themselves are our problem. We talk a great deal about protecting religious liberty, but very little about the possibility that the modern concept of religion itself (not to mention that of liberty) is integral to Christianity’s diminution. We ask whether capitalism is the best economic system, but we don’t consider that perhaps the very idea of “economic systems” presupposes a liberal understanding of the social order. We are talking a great deal about liberalism, but very little about the possibility that by remaining within liberal discourse, we are unwittingly reinforcing our own marginalization. Can we offer a critique of liberalism that remains bound by liberal concepts? I think not. To remain within the liberal discourse of rights, laws, states, economics, freedom, private and public is not merely to render ourselves unable to articulate a coherent opposition to liberal modernity, it is far worse. We are in fact engaged in a massive, yet obscured, project of begging the question. Our criticism buttresses its object.
Within the meta-narrative of emancipation that underwrites liberalism, Christians are cast as the losing side. No amount of maneuvering can change that. Indeed, such maneuvering is precisely our role in the drama. We are cast to fight a rear-guard action: we steadily lose ground, but nonetheless put up a stubborn resistance. In the liberal march to freedom, we are the ever-retreating but necessary tyrants; the enemies of human rights against whom the freedom fighters heroically contend; the defenders of dogma against whom the courageous scientists struggle; the stuffy prudes against whom the free-spirited youth must battle. We have all seen multiple versions of this movie – in fact, this is the plot of nearly all our cultural productions.
If this is indeed our role, new tactics won’t save us. By devising new ways to “turn back the clock” or putting forth new arguments about freedom and rights or religion and the state, we are just learning the new lines we need to continue to play the losing side in a liberal script, acted out on a set constructed of modern concepts. To view ourselves as the retreating good guys is simply our character.
Even when Catholics are at their most anti-liberal, even when we dare to venture arguments in favor of Confessional States, we stay in character. Indeed, the allure of the Confessional State is a part of the pathos of that character and we are never more recognizable within the storyline than when we find ourselves defending the alliance of crown and altar against individual liberty and freedom of conscience. As a part of the twisting plot of the drama, the liberals have, of course, suspected us of being secretly integralists all along. The script is written, the parts are cast, the set is built, the play is being performed. We’re trapped.
I think there is a way out. But it requires that we both deconstruct the modern drama and propose an alternative. We must rewrite history and so develop a new narrative that supports an alternate set of categories which do not cast Christianity as merely a religious actor, but rather positions Christianity as the stage on which history itself is performed. We must come to understand our world through a larger narrative within which the liberal epoch is a diverting sub-plot. If we do so, Christians can come to view ourselves not as an embattled minority on the losing side of history, but as protagonists in a missionary insurgency.
The time is ripe for the launching of such a postliberal insurgency because liberalism is failing. America’s language and categories, our habits of thought and action, our narratives and myths, our positive social structures have all been built by liberal modernity in order to live in liberal modernity; and they don’t work anymore. Everyone knows this. Even as we remain trapped in liberal language games, our discourse feels wrong, mistaken, inadequate, if not downright deceptive.
A true Christian reform must offer a meta-critique of liberalism. Most critiques of liberalism cede too much ground. They argue things like: a society built on atomized individuals cannot adequately pursue common goods. And in so doing, they concede that liberal society is in fact made up of self-sufficient individuals. This won’t work. If liberals are wrong, it is not because of their bad policy positions; our critique can’t be that a society of self-sufficient individuals is unhealthy. Instead, we should maintain that a society built on atomized individuals is a fantasy. It is impossible. The liberal language of autonomous individuals independently pursuing their rational interests is a rhetorical strategy masking an ugly reality; a deformed and self-destructive community. But a community nonetheless. Instead of talking about moral relativism, Christians ought to insist that every human interaction is governed by morality: not that every interaction ought to be so governed, but that every interaction is so governed, concretely, in society, now, always. We ought to show how liberalism constructs and enforces its own invasive code of conduct and that its selective pretenses toward relativism are integral to this disciplinary regime. Rather than arguing for a Confessional State, we ought to argue that liberalism is the Confessional State par excellence. We ought to argue that both the notion of religion as made up of distinct confessions and of politics as monopolized into States are products of liberalism’s self-construction. Confessional States are a liberal concept: they are liberalism’s evil twin, the dark side. We ought to want neither confessions nor States, and what is more we ought to deny that a discourse that relies upon such categories is capable of really understanding the social landscape. They may help us understand liberalism, indeed, but not reality.
In this way, a real critique of liberalism must be a deconstruction of its lexicon and the simultaneous construction of a new lexicon which is capable of getting the upper hand on liberal concepts. Because the meaning of language is always emerging from narratives, the construction of a postliberal lexicon and the telling of a postliberal story are intimately connected.
Such a story can be told. Modernity was something that the Church did. It was the work of the baptized. Europe was not invaded by outsiders. It was not colonized by a foreign power that imported an alien world-view or strange social structures. Christendom built modernity. Christianity, therefore, has the resources to situate liberal modernity within a bigger story that eliminates its claims to be a definitive discourse. Such a re-articulation of modernity in terms of Christianity is indispensable if Christendom’s (mostly heretical) modern age is to be reformed into Christendom’s next, (mostly orthodox) postliberal age -- an age of reform and a new Christian civilization.
This re-articulation is imperative because, though the baptized may have built modernity, it is not clear that they will be the builders of what is constructed on its rubble.
Modernity is caught between a perversion of Christian rationality that manifests itself in “unaided reason”, and a revived paganism—a heroic and romantic valorization of power and glory. The first tendency was parasitic on Christian orthodoxy, and while it undermined the foundations of faith, it has itself weakened along with its host: without the faith that maintains its orientation and objects, reason, as we have seen in postmodernism, turns on itself. The second tendency toward paganism has gained ground. It is the more dangerous of the two because paganism is capable of independence, of a coherent (though horrible) civilization. It absorbs what’s left of reason, transforming it into mere technology, mere instrumental power. What comes next, if it is not Christian, will not be some sort of enlightened, secular, post-historical, technological utopia. It will likely be paganism without the trappings of Christian morality and without the pretenses of enlightened rationality.
Such a paganism finally broken free from the modern project would be no simple post-modern, rational appropriation of Nietzsche but something new. Modernity is now being “re-formed” as such a pagan regime, complete with a narrative that includes Christianity as a relative historical phenomenon: the postmodern can be connected to the ancient in a single plotline. This is happening. The components are being formed. The world-view is being developed. Right and left are racing toward this conclusion, feeding their constituents ever less Christian problems and ever less Christian solutions. If Christianity doesn’t act, the lexicon of liberalism is likely to be replaced with one of pagan power. A language and so a world of violence is being built, one greedy person at a time, one pornographic film at a time, one racist at a time, one abortion at a time, one intolerant partisan at a time. If it comes to fruition, this civilization will be powerful and it will have no place for Christianity.
This is what Christian postliberalism is up against: will human liberty be reconnected to the indwelling rationality of creation itself, or will it finally become eclipsed in the pure power of the will? One thing it will not be is the liberty of the French Revolution or of John Stuart Mill. That age is over. Nobody cares about that notion of freedom anymore. Most people, I think, don’t even know what it is.
Christianity must emerge out of the ruins of modernity with a new vision; a new proposal for a new civilization, rooted in and consistent with its deepest traditions. What such a vision might be is hard to say, but it cannot be a shoring up of modernity. Conventional conservative attempts to defend disinterested rationality, to buttress the integrity of private realms of conscience and religion, to preserve contemporary structures of property and power will fail.
Christianity has deep resources from which to draw. Christianity has the depths from which to offer a meta-critique and the solutions that can save all that was good and right in modernity. If modernity is indeed a Christian heresy, then orthodoxy contains its strengths and even its pathos, but without its exaggerated errors. Within a recasting of the liberal lexicon in terms of a Christian lexicon, liberalism itself, like the Christian heresies that have come before it, is capable of some measure of redemption.
We are launching Postliberal Thought in order to provide a place for this work. We understand the project to be the work of generations and we are fully aware that by breaking free from the dominant paradigm, we thrust ourselves into areas of intellectual instability and obscurity. Much of what we propose will often no doubt turn out to be mistaken; many of the roads we go down will no doubt turn out to be dead-ends. Postliberal Thought is therefore a place for open-minds and forgiving spirits. We hope to forge a community of Christian thinkers who are animated not by certainty concerning what to do or what to think, but by the hope that we, humbled in prayer before God, will find a way forward.