Here, from New Oxford Review, is an excellent, rich interview with the Polish philosopher and statesman Ryszard Legutko. I could quote lots of it here, but I want to focus on these two passages, because it brought to mind something I encountered again and again in Paris recently:
NOR:For Catholics in the West, totalitarian temptations in free societies have particularly alarming manifestations and consequences. You write, however, that “it is the people themselves who have eventually come to accept, often on a pre-intellectual level, that eliminating the institutions incompatible with liberal-democratic principles constitutes a wise and necessary step.” How is this danger different from the communist regime under which you lived? And is there an internal danger to the Catholic Church from those people, including Catholics, who view the Church as an institution incompatible with liberal-democratic principles?
Legutko: The Catholic Church, at least in my country, despite occasional accommodating gestures toward the communist regime, usually of a tactical nature, believed itself to be and was perceived by the communists as being an alien body that was structurally and philosophically in opposition to communism. There were, of course, some individual priests who either became informers or were duped by communist ideology and claimed that Christianity and communism were allies. This thinking, by the way, was quite widespread among the leftist intelligentsia in non-communist Europe. Most of the great Protestant and Catholic theologians of the 20th century were, at certain moments in their lives, close to this belief, including Karl Barth, Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain, Paul Tillich, and many others. The Catholic Church, however, remained largely distant from and, for a long time, hostile to communism.
At a certain moment, the official attitude of the Church softened and became less outspoken. This is not to say that the Church wanted to sanctify communism. Far from it. John Paul II’s role in abolishing communism was paramount. What the Church did, however, was to try to make itself more in tune with the modern times, and being more in tune meant accepting some aspects of Marxist and related left-wing ideologies that, incidentally, had been teaching for many years that everything must join the current of history, or perish.
This conflict between progressives who want the Church to keep pace with the march of time (whatever this might mean) and conservatives who opt for continuity with or preservation of the unchangeable core of the doctrine has been going on for a long time. The progressives have usually been victorious because a lot of people believe that, whether we want it or not, we have to adapt ourselves to the modern world, and this directive applies to every person and every institution, including the Church. The opposite directive — that the modern world should adapt itself to what we think is right — has less support today, and it’s easy to see why.
Since the modern world means, for many people, liberal democracy, and since liberal democracy is deemed to be the supreme political arrangement (as communism and socialism were thought to be several decades ago), it is natural that those people want the Church to adapt itself to democratic and liberal standards and practices. Despite obvious differences between communism and liberal democracy, both pose a mortal danger to the Church. In the case of liberal democracy, the risk is even greater. It implies not only that the Church should kowtow to earthly power, but that earthly power is the teacher and the Church a learner. This presupposes an even greater concession than that which the Church previously made toward Marxism. Then it was said that socialism and Christianity may converge or may have a common objective or are somehow similar in their moral message. Today, the towering position of liberal democracy makes a lot of people — including quite a number of Catholics — accept a view that the Church should subordinate itself.
NOR: You argue that “Christianity is the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal-democratic anthropology.” Can you elaborate?
Legutko: One of the main elements of my book is a reflection on the anthropological assumptions that underlie our political choices. Both democracy and liberalism have assumed a minimalist concept of human nature, devoid of any higher dimensions, metaphysical or moral. Christianity has an entirely different view of human nature, similar in many respects to what we find in antiquity. On the one hand, man is defined, like Aristotle’s political man, by his existence in a society in which he — as a person, not as an individual — can acquire moral virtues, and on the other hand, by his metaphysical status, having been created in the image of God. To put it differently, the liberal-democratic man is a flat character whose higher aspirations are considered either as personal idiosyncrasies or politically dangerous ambitions to overthrow equality. In Christianity, as in antiquity, human existence is represented vertically — it has its highs and lows and is strained between sainthood and sin. In Christianity, we hope to live up to that for which we were created, but we also fear failure. In the flat anthropology of liberal democracy, there is not much people hope for and not much they fear. Even God is reduced to a liberal-democratic dimension in that He resembles a nice, easygoing philanthropist more than the God we read about in the Bible.
In other words, the theorists of liberalism and democracy have tried to eliminate from the picture of human nature all the elements they believe to be irreconcilable with the idea of equality and which they think go beyond everything that is needed for a liberal-democratic system to function. What transcends this horizon is negligible, unnecessary, irrational, and often dangerous. This flatness of philosophy and imagination prevents those infected by it from perceiving and treating seriously those insights into human nature that were passed on to us by the ancients and Christian philosophy and theology. This drastically limited perspective translates itself into art, thereby reinforcing itself, and, consequently, into education, which, predictably, has been transformed in such a way that it almost completely cut itself off from our ancient and medieval heritage.
The point I was trying to make is that wherever Christianity survives and is strong, people are likely to broaden their perspective and go beyond what liberal democracy offers them philosophically — or at least they are given the tools to do so. As classical culture disappears from school curricula, Christianity remains, practically, the only way to go outside the closed and arid world of the liberal-democratic set of ideas.
What does this have to do with France? When I was there promoting The Benedict Option, the No. 1 question I got from audiences had to do with the menace of “community.” In France, the word does not have the neutral, or even positive, connotations that it has here. “Community” carries with it a sense of a group setting itself apart from the whole — and that is an offense against republican ideal of égalité (equality). To French audiences, the Benedict Option concept sounds anti-democratic in principle.
To be fair, I have the same challenge with American audiences: convincing them that I’m not calling on radical, head-for-the-hills withdrawal from society. The difference is that in America, we have a greater tolerance for non-conformity, for groups setting themselves apart. In general, we don’t find this threatening. For better or for worse, our is a more individualistic culture.
Here’s where Legutko comes in. In his first point above, he talks about the long conflict between the Catholic Church and liberal democracy, and how progressive elements within the church believe that the church should be subordinate to modernity. In the second passage, he talks about how the “anthropology” of liberal democracy is a flattening egalitarianism. One can interpret this as pressing out the legitimate desire for moral greatness and sanctity from society and those formed by it.
A Christianity that has surrendered to the anthropology of liberal democracy becomes Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
A Christian who does not recognize how much true Christianity conflicts with this modernist anthropology and set his mind to resisting it will eventually cease to be a Christian. Or if not himself, then his children. The power of modernity is too strong.
The point is not to reject liberal democracy as a political system. The point is to limit its philosophical reach, and especially its reach into religion. The only Christianity that will survive being steamrollered by egalitarianism is the Christianity of tradition — and a Christianity that takes unqualified primacy in the lives of its adherents.
In France, the picture of the church (here I speak of the entire Christian church, though France is overwhelmingly Catholic) is significantly different from that in the US. France secularized in a different way than we are secularizing, and is farther along the path that we are. The number of practicing Catholics there is small. I spent time around older Catholics who displayed a strong eagerness to be thought of as fully integrated into French society. The younger ones — Millennials, mostly — didn’t seem (to me) to have that compulsion. I would have had to have spent more time there to understand why, but my guess is that they either intuit or see clearly that assimilation to secular bourgeois culture will mean the death of the faith.
If I’m right about that, then they see much more clearly than most of us American Christians do. We still want to think that we can be completely part of contemporary American life, without conflict, and without compromising our faith. We have lots of rationalizations for this; I don’t need to catalog them here. In the end, it all comes down to having absorbed the ideological egalitarianism of our liberal democratic culture, which entails a fear of going against its grain, a profound anxiety about standing outside of it. Those Christians who believe that they can live untroubled as faithful Christians within liberal democracy in its highly ideological, post-Christian form, are deceiving themselves, according to Legutko. From his must-read book The Demon in Democracy:
All Christians who believe that liberal-democratic ideology is like an ordinary coat, no different from any other, that they can put on to be able to move around more easily and comfortably but inside which they will still remain the same Christians, make a mistake — and a double one to boot. The first mistake is a wrong choice of strategy. The liberal-democracy ideology uses — no matter that it does so fraudulently — the rhetoric of multiculturalism, which is supposed to give justice to the existence of different “cultures,” which, precisely because they are different, are said to contribute to the richness and diversity of society. But if this were true, then Christians should compete with others for a visible presence and for influence — after all, this is what the coexistence of different groups in a liberal democracy should amount to — and in order to be a successful competitor they should act as an energetic and full-blooded group, strongly committed to their cause, openly determined to imprint their mark on the world. The opposite strategy — obliterating the boundaries, diluting their message in liberal jargon, cajoling the idols of modernity, paying homage to today’s superstitions, self-effacing their identity — condemns Christians to a sad defeat with no dignity and no progeny.
Got that? Assimilation = death. More:
The second mistake is to ignore the fact that the liberal-democratic ideology has long since ceased to be open (if it ever was) and has entered a stage of rigid dogmatization. The more conquests it makes, the less the victors are willing to show clemency to anyone outside the winning forces. The Christians who put on humble faces and declare their readiness to seek a common ground of action for a better world stand no chance to survive, regardless of how far in their self-repudiation they go. Sooner or later they will have to sign an unconditional surrender and to join the system with no opt-out and no conscience clauses, or, in the even of a sudden declaration of non possumus [“We cannot”], they will be instantly degraded to the position of a contemptible enemy of liberal democracy. So far, nothing indicates that the regime will lose its ideological momentum.
The argument I make in The Benedict Option is basically this:
1. Modernity, which is the egalitarian and emancipatory ideology of liberal democracy, has been slowly destroying Christianity in the West. In most of Europe, Christianity is little more than a fading memory. In the United States, it is also a fading memory for many younger people, and where it is practiced, it is overwhelmingly a pseudo-Christianity called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is what you get when you replace the God of historic Christianity with the god of the Self, as liberal-democratic ideology leads one to do.
2. Most Christians in the West deceive themselves about the threat to their core convictions posed by this ideology, and do not grasp the mortal danger the faith is in. Nor do they understand the enemy. For example, many conservative Christians have a superficial understanding of the conflict, and think that their faith is only under threat from political liberals in power.
3. Liberal-democratic ideology is going to win in the short term, because the only force able to resist or moderate it — traditional Christianity — has been routed. The inability of Christians to see this — or their unwillingness to do so — only makes their predicament worse. Despite what we wish to believe, the Bible (and the Church, depending on your tradition) is not the prime source of authority for us, but only one of several competing sources of authority mediated by the sovereign Self;
4. Christians must prepare themselves morally and spiritually to be regarded as, in Legutko’s words, “contemptible enemies of liberal democracy;”
5. Small-o orthodox Christians cannot reasonably hope to turn the tsunami, but they might be able to ride out the flood. They can only do this by
a) understanding the times and positioning themselves in opposition to the flow of the culture;
b) returning to a pre-modern form of Christianity (e.g., Catholicism of traditional practice, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Reformation-era Protestantism); and
c) adopting traditional spiritual practices — ordered prayer, Scripture study, fasting, etc. — to order our days and our entire lives toward discipleship
Last week in France, I met in a café with Alain Finkielkraut, arguably the leading public intellectual in a country full of them, and talked about the future of France and of the West. He is a secular Jew (the son of Holocaust survivors), an atheist, as well as a man of deep thought. He is extremely pessimistic about the future of his nation. Here are some excerpts from an interview Der Spiegel did with him:
SPIEGEL: Mr. Finkielkraut, are you unhappy with today’s France?
Finkielkraut: I am pained to see that the French mode of European civilization is threatened. France is in the process of transforming into a post-national and multicultural society. It seems to me that this enormous transformation does not bring anything good.
SPIEGEL: Why is that? Post-national and multicultural sounds rather promising.
Finkielkraut: It is presented to us as the model for the future. But multiculturalism does not mean that cultures blend. Mistrust prevails, communitarianism is rampant — parallel societies are forming that continuously distance themselves from each other.
See, there it is: the fear of isolated communities. Who can possibly blame Finkielkraut from fearing this, given the situation with Islam and Muslims in his country? But Finkielkraut perfectly well sees that French society does not have within itself the resources — or at least the will — to defend itself and strengthen itself. Finkielkraut and I agreed that novelist Michel Houellebecq has taken accurate measure of contemporary France: that it is dying from a lack of transcendent vision, of the sort supplied by religion. Houellebecq is not a believer, and neither, again, is Finkielkraut. This is why Finkielkraut cannot see hope.
Here’s what he — like many Christian Frenchmen — cannot see too: that the survival of Christianity in France requires violating the taboo against communitarian thinking. Legutko rightly says that Christianity cannot survive the encounter with ideological liberalism, because to compromise with it in the way liberalism now demands requires surrendering the faith.
SPIEGEL: You yourself are the child of immigrants, the progeny of a persecuted family. Does your personal will to integrate explain your radical commitment to the values of the Republic?
Finkielkraut: I defend these values because I probably owe more to my schooling than do the Français de souche, the hereditary French. French traditions and history were not laid in my cradle. Anyone who does not bring along this heritage can acquire it in l’école républicaine, the French school system. It has expanded my horizons and allowed me to immerse myself in French civilization.
SPIEGEL: And made you into its apologist?
Finkielkraut: I can speak and write more openly than others precisely because I am not a hereditary Frenchman. The natives easily allow themselves to be unnerved by the prevailing discourse. I don’t have such complexes.
He’s right about the “complexes” French people have about censoring themselves, not allowing themselves to see what is in front of them, and even if they see it, to talk about it. But we Americans do the same thing. Leaving aside political correctness, we Christians censor ourselves in terms of what we allow ourselves to see and to say about our own present and future in America. Americans are optimistic by nature, but there is no reason to be optimistic about the future of Christianity in our country. There is reason to hope, certainly, but hope is not the same thing as optimism. If we are going to have real hope, then we are going to have to discard this blinding optimism.
Ryszard Legutko says that “Christianity remains, practically, the only way to go outside the closed and arid world of the liberal-democratic set of ideas.” He’s right about that, but he’s not talking about the pallid, happy-clappy, modernist form of Christianity, which thinks winsomeness is next to godliness, and which is willing to negotiate its terms of surrender to and collaboration with the world.