March 9, 2018 Steve Bannon once expressed the view this piquant political moment could be "as exciting as the 1930s." Not because the president is akin to Hitler. But because "everything might be up for grabs: not just electoral coalitions, but the nature and destiny of the liberal order." Drawing on Patrick Deneen's new book, Why Liberalism Failed, Ross Douthat gives credibility to his thesis:
Where it once delivered equality, liberalism now offers plutocracy; instead of liberty, appetitiveness regulated by a surveillance state; instead of true intellectual and religious freedom, growing conformity and mediocrity. It has reduced rich culture to consumer products, smashed social and familial relations, and left us all the isolated and mutually suspicious inhabitants of an "anticulture" from which many genuine human goods have fled.
Then, on the basis we lack consensus on an alternative to the current regime, and with Trumpism apparently on the wane, Douthat concludes that "maybe the crisis of liberalism isn't real, maybe people are just play-acting."
As a Christian, Douthat is aware of the parasitic qualities of modernity, how it draws upon tradition and the "moralism and metaphysical horizons of religion," while trashing the beliefs, rites and institutions from which that inheritance arose. Yet he overlooks the fact this subversive mindset is the calling-card of his savior, the archetypal political wrecking ball.
"Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth," says the Gospel according to Matthew. "I did not come to bring peace but a sword."
While miracles, true or otherwise, were obviously helpful, Jesus is the cultural icon he is because he bore witness to two principles, separate but related. First, accept without question the will of God, our one true deity. A reasonable request, given only an omniscient transcendent force, the first cause of everything, could ever truly know why the universe exists, what the Plan for restoring pre-cosmic unity involves and the role we each have in the glorious Homecoming. Second, love your neighbor, no matter what.
Vertical then horizontal
Importantly, these goals are hierarchical. The person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth focus on the vertical aspect of life, that inner connection with Something Greater, a presence and imperative both behind and beyond the material world. Reality, qualitative and holistic, always more than it seems, is a mystery that cannot be mastered. So why, as he asks during the Sermon on the Mount, worry? If the birds and lilies are cared for, surely, so too are we. The teller of parables implores Man to stop reasoning in his heart. Myth and allegory, more than the grasping mind, is how we make sense of things. Regardless of how daunting the path that rises up to meet him, by embracing his fate, Jesus is able to transcend incredible physical and psychological suffering and, in so doing, give meaning to his mortal existence. With an eternal foothold secured, his sublime self-confidence is freed to contend with the horizontal, all that is worldly.
Jesus is no anarchist. Render to Caesar what it rightly his, but don't overreach. Don't judge or seek vengeance. "And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?" is practical advice, as no-one – king, cleric or president – has a complete handle on the big picture. The moral truth, familiar to us inwardly but also independent, and thus, in effect, objective, must nonetheless be lived subjectively, in response to the concrete particularities of our own unique calling. Any attempt to reduce it to a set of rules and conventions for political purposes is an act of vanity, a pre-empting of the Plan that aims to put Man on par with God. As Paul makes clear in his epistle to the Romans, "he who loves another has fulfilled the law."
Anyone, at any time, irrespective of race, class or gender, can opt to make absolute faith their raison d'être. Which is not to disavow the common good or a collective cause. We all get Home, or no-one does. It's just that a durable union of souls has to be co-incidental to a freely-made, personal apprehension of Something Greater. Aware of this vertical-horizontal dynamic, Jesus strives for pluralistic solidarity based on empathy, compassion and commonsense. The past is locked down, the future uncertain, in the hands of our maker. Yet we can influence the present by being open and attentive to its immediate, other-worldly demands. He takes the sword, not to structure and critical thought per se, but to a shameless reliance on formal orthodoxy and iron-fisted authority to achieve eschatological closure.
Of course, the uncomplicated story of Jesus, shared over bread and wine, eventually succumbed to sophistry. Political movements naturally prioritize horizontal order and stability over a mystical fellowship with a universal spirit whose intentions are unknowable to reason. The church domesticated its messiah. Thankfully, his radical egalitarianism and individualism re-emerged centuries later, causing the cultural West to depose a quasi-spiritual Christian theocracy, ossified by the false hope a punitive system, exclusive and morally rigid, would one day deliver the advertised love-conquers-all ethos.
But as Deneen correctly observes, the replacement is just as – if not more – disappointing. Freedoms cultivated since the Reformation and Enlightenment have been overrun by an insidious strain of statism. The gathering moral and social wreckage has left a disempowered populace unable "to control or influence the state, the economy, and much of our own fates." And there's no prospect of reform. Nor can we go back. Modern liberalism "created the conditions, and the tools, for the ascent of its own nightmare, yet it lacks the self-knowledge to understand its own culpability."