The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (preview)
Rod Dreher on secular modernity, wokeness, the Christ myth, and living as a Christian in a secular world
Rod Dreher is currently a columnist at American Conservative after a long career in journalism, that included a stint as film critic for The New York Post. His best-selling The Benedict Option encourages Christians to escape a venal and corrupt modern world via communitarian eremetism, after St. Benedict and his followers who fled a crumbling Roman world. His most recent book Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents touches on similar themes of resisting what’s perceived as a domineering secular culture.
For of those whom you see insolently and shamelessly insulting the servants of Christ, there are numbers who would not have escaped that destruction and slaughter had they not pretended that they themselves were Christ's servants. Yet now, in ungrateful pride and most impious madness, and at the risk of being punished in everlasting darkness, they perversely oppose that name under which they fraudulently protected themselves for the sake of enjoying the light of this brief life1.
St. Augustine, The City of God
This almost feels like a continuation of the conversation I had with Tom Holland, which I’ll summarize here. His big thesis, explained in his sweeping book Dominion, is that Christian thinking underlies a lot of secular Western liberalism, though it’s hard to see from within that same paradigm (cf. the proverbial fish in water). He also said a few things I thought were really striking and you’d probably have thoughts on.
One is that the sort of liberal atheist world we’re currently in is not some bizarre distraction from the Christian trajectory, but in fact its inevitable outcome. The cluster of symptoms that Douglas Murray diagnoses in his The Strange Death of Europe—the lacuna of collective meaning, falling birth rates, the crisis of cultural confidence—all of this is the inevitable end of Christian thinking. That at some point, Christianity transmutes into secular Enlightenment thought—‘human rights’ instead of the ‘divine spark’, ethics instead of morality—and we end up where we are now, with the worship of Christ-like victimhood reaching a self-consuming apotheosis. He and I both agree that something like the George Floyd protests feels very Christ-like in its cultish fervor.
Which (finally!) brings us to the conversation we had in our Clubhouse session months ago about Live Not by Lies (which I haven’t managed to get out of my head): There’s a lot in the book, but you critique much of progressive thought, and separately you highlight the plight of the Christian martyrs in the former Eastern Europe and what they suffered.
Nowadays I look at Christianity from a Jewish perspective, which makes one thing that Holland constantly harps on about Christianity really stand out: The centrality of suffering and oppression as an embodiment of the divine in Christianity. Also, the moral inversion whereby ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first,’ i.e., the radical notion that the poor, the ill, the oppressed embody divinity and are worthy of reverence. While much of Christianity is an amplified aspect of Judaism, it's hard to find episodes of victimhood worship in the Hebrew Bible. Seen from that perspective, progressivism and Christianity are perhaps not the contrasting value systems you present in your book.
Well, there’s a lot there. I think that the reason victimhood becomes so important in Christian thought is because when the Messiah came, and obviously Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, he did not come as a conquering king but as a suffering servant. And according to Christian logic, he conquered through his suffering, and he conquered even death. The Messiah did not come to be a political leader, but rather came to be a leader in the kingdom of God, which is a spiritual kingdom. So for the Christian, the most important thing to do is to imitate our savior and turn the other cheek, to do all the things that He exemplified in His life and that He commanded us to do. That is the ideal Christian way of life.
I think it’s obvious that wokeness is a Christian heritage or perversion of Christianity. René Girard wrote in one of his final books2 that after Christianity we have entered a place now where the sacralization of the victim per se has become a sort of a totalitarian religion. Girard had a really interesting point about this. He said that when the Antichrist comes—the figure in Christianity who was going to be the counterfeit Christ before the end of days—he is going to be an imitation of Christ. He’s going to be a better Christian than Jesus Christ himself. And Girard saw that what we now call wokeness, making the sacralization of victims an end in itself, was a form of the Antichrist.
When Solzhenitsyn said the most important thing he learned in the Gulag was that the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart, that was a profoundly Christian statement.
I talk about this in Live Not by Lies, about how ‘woke’ social justice differs from the biblical Christian concept of social justice. All Christians believe that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So there is none of us without sin. Even as you look to the poor and the downtrodden as those in most need of God’s mercy, and perhaps the weak as being exemplars of a Christlike spirit, you can’t say they’re innocent. None of us are innocent. When Solzhenitsyn said the most important thing he learned in the Gulag was that the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart, that was a profoundly Christian statement.
So that’s the sort of thing that we have to keep in mind, so we don’t make the mistake of exonerating gays or Blacks or whatever the different racial or sexual minorities and say they’re innocent by virtue of their victimhood. That’s to make a tremendous mistake. And we end up going to the same place the Soviets were. In my book, as you might remember, I quoted Martin Latsis, the head of the Cheka in Ukraine right after the Bolshevik Revolution.
He sent instructions out to his agents about how to execute the Red Terror that said: “Don’t look to see what people actually said or did against Soviets. Just look at their class membership. That will tell you if they’re guilty or innocent.”3 Well, we hear echoes of that very clearly when we hear the woke, whether it’s on campus or in HR departments, talking about people being guilty by virtue of their “whiteness.” I’ll stop there.
It’s funny that you mentioned the Marxism thing, because again, I see a lot of parallels between Marxism and progressivism and even Christianity to some degree.
Well, Yuri Slezkine, the Russian-American historian at Berkeley, described Bolshevism as an apocalyptic millennial political cult. And in his great history, The House of Government, he talks about the clear parallels between Bolshevism (i.e., Marxism) and Christianity, apocalyptic Christianity and apocalyptic movements in Judaism and in Islam. I mean, this need for apocalyptic religion is something very, very deep in all of the Abrahamic faiths.
If anything, wokeness is communism, but applied along racial rather than class dimensions.
Yeah, I think you’re right about that. And one thing too, you said that talking about the inevitability of the desacralization of Christianity and it turning into a secular human rights liberalism, that’s a fascinating question about whether it was inevitable or not. Like you, I don’t think it was inevitable. I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian and we broke with Western Christianity, or they broke with us, in 1054. And the two forms of Christianity developed along very different lines. I tend to believe that the defeat of scholasticism—that’s Thomas Aquinas along with others and their way of thinking—the defeat of scholasticism in the High Middle Ages by the philosophy of nominalism, that was a key turning point. We quit seeing God as inherent in creation and reality itself, and we began seeing him as outside of matter.
It seems like an ‘angels dancing on the head of a pin’ kind of thing, but when you begin to think of God as not immanent in creation, but rather wholly outside of his creation…in the sense that that things themselves, material objects, only have value because God wills them to be good. Or God looks at them and calls them good, instead of them having some participation in the being of God. I think that does start the ball rolling down to the ultimate desacralization of the material world. I just said a mouthful there, but I think that there is a pretty clear philosophical pretext or precursor for the desacralization of the West, the Christian West that is.
Interesting. I thought the inflection point you were going to reference where everything changed was the Nietzschean death of God. If you look at the early history of Christianity, the first Christians expected Christ to return in their own generation4. When that obviously didn’t happen, the Kingdom of God became about everlasting life in the afterlife and remained so for centuries
But when God died in the 18th and 19th centuries, in some sense, the utopia bill became due in this world rather than the next. The notion of making the kingdom of God manifest had to be in the here and now, not the hereafter. Most of the movements that came to characterize modernity--Marxism, classical liberalism, modern nationalism, abolitionism, the temperance movement, suffragism in its various manifestations--were born at the same time and I think it’s no coincidence. Maybe we’re describing the same slippery slope, but you’re uphill from me.
Well, you know what’s really interesting, a book I’m rereading right now, I hadn’t read it in years, It’s called The Master and His Emissary by Dr. Ian McGilchrist. Have you heard of that book?
No, I’m looking it up right now.
It came out in 2009 and was widely reviewed very positively. McGilchrist is a neuroscientist, a psychiatrist, I think. His basic thesis says that in a healthy human brain, human consciousness is balanced between abstract logical thinking and intuitive emotional thinking. In the West in the early modern era we began to privilege logic and abstraction. This caused us to make great material and scientific advances, but it disconnected us from a way of perceiving reality that other people outside the West still maintained. And his idea is that we’ve got to recover a more balanced vision and redevelop our intuitive sense or we’re going to destroy ourselves. He’s not a religious person. I actually talked to him once and he said that if he were religious, he would become Eastern Orthodox because he thinks Eastern Orthodox Christians have the best balanced view, that even western Latin Christianity has become too cerebral.
It reminds me of this book also called The WEIRDest People in the World by Joe Henrich.
Oh, sure. What a great book.
Yeah, great book. For those who haven’t read it: the book’s argument is that the printing press and our adoption of literacy--in other words, everyone staring at little squiggles called letters and understanding the world through them--physically alters the structure of your brain and how it works.
I’d be interested to see what you think about this one thing I learned, having been a Western Christian for most of my adult life. I started taking religion seriously in my twenties when I converted to Catholicism, and then I had a dramatic loss of faith writing about the abuse scandal and shipwrecked on the shores of Eastern Orthodoxy and became Orthodox in 2006. I’ve been a practicing Orthodox Christian since then. I didn’t really know much about Orthodoxy. I went there, but mostly for theological reasons, because coming from Catholicism, they’re the only other church that has valid sacraments. But I’ve learned a lot in Orthodoxy about how different the Eastern mindset is from the Western mindset, specifically in this way.
In the East, you can find very deep theological speculation, but everything is centered on the conversion of the heart. It sounds very emotional using that language, but what they basically mean is philosophical speculation about God is good, but it has to be subordinated to what we call theosis, which is to become united with God wholly: heart, soul, mind and body. It’s not something that can be completely done until the next life. But the point simply is that you cannot separate speculation about the material world from an awareness of God's intimate presence within that world. And I think that it does make a difference in the way we think and talk about God’s working in the world. And it becomes a lot more difficult to go through the sort of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment and the filtering out of divinity from creation. I think there’s a reason the enlightenment happened in the West and not in the East. And it’s not simply because of the Islamic captivity of the Eastern church.
Huh, interesting. Okay. I would appreciate reading more about it because again, I was raised Catholic, but Orthodox Christianity following the schism in 1054, just dropped off the map from the Western perspective…
Yeah. Well, I thought it was just basically Catholicism without a Pope and with a more exotic liturgy, but it’s really not. And when I became a Catholic, I mean, sorry, when I became an Orthodox, somebody in our parish said: “It’s going to take you 10 years to really start thinking like an Orthodox.” And I thought that was silly. I said, “Just give me a book. Let me read it.” But Orthodoxy is something that you have to learn like you learn how to play a musical instrument. You can only really learn it through doing. And that’s something that was very hard for me to accept. I’m the sort of person that thinks I should just be able to read enough books and I’ve got something, but that is not it. It is a religion of practice. And I think in that sense, it may be closer to Judaism, as I think Judaism as a religion of practice, of thinking as well clearly, but also to be a Jew is to do things that Jews do. Am I right about that?
Yes. That’s one of the big splits in religion, between orthopraxic religions and orthodoxic ones. One in which what you do is what matters, versus what you think. There’s a saying in Judaism that Jews agree on exactly what you should be doing, which is why they often completely disagree about the doctrinal side of things. There are schools of Judaism that are actually very opposed in terms of what they doctrinally believe. You’ve even got a flavor of Judaism that's kind of avowedly agnostic in that it says, “Well, if God doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter.” And from the functional definition of Judaism, it doesn’t matter, because Jewish practice would be the same whether God actively intervened in the world or not (or even didn’t exist).
Well, there’s a book I read that I bet you would love. It’s called How Societies Remember. It’s by a British social anthropologist named Paul Connerton. He died a couple of years ago, but I think he was at Cambridge. Anyway, he was a Marxist himself, but what interested him was how traditional societies living in modernity managed to hold on to their traditions in the face of the dissolving currents of modernity. And he found that all the small traditional societies that managed to do this had a few things in common.
First of all, they had a sacred story that they held in common, the story that told them who they were. Secondly, they performed this story in ritual, in fixed rituals. The rituals had to be collective. They had to all do it together and it had to be unchanging. And the rituals had to involve the body. There’s something really important about submitting, not just your mind to these liturgies and rituals, but the body. And that really startled me when I read it. I first read it a few years ago because it helped me understand why Orthodox Christianity was so powerful and had so powerfully captured me.
All of these things, you can find them in Christianity, especially in the more ancient traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. But in Orthodox Christianity itself, we use the body so much, not only in our liturgical worship when we sometimes in the days of penitence during lent, you fall down flat on your face during the liturgy to ask God’s forgiveness, but also in the fasting that we do.
I mean, if you’re a pious Orthodox Christian, you’re avoiding meat and dairy on Wednesday and Friday of almost every week of the year, and during prescribed fasting periods, no meat, no dairy, period. And this is a really difficult thing for Americans to get used to, but you begin to realize the importance of fasting to train our bodies and our muscle memory, so to speak, to submit the flesh to the spirit.
In Judaism, it’s very similar. In the morning, a good observant Jew should wrap his arms and head in leather straps with a box containing scripture, as a symbolic binding of head and arm, thought and action, with the law. It actually leaves welts on your arm, and it’s a very physical thing. It seems like the Jews somehow either accidentally or intentionally figured out exactly the way to make their culture survive, which it did.
So I have two questions and I’m just forcing the conversation along. I’d love to rap with you more, but otherwise it just ends up being an uneditable mess.
Oh, sure. Please do. Please jump in and pull me back.
There are two points here I want to get your input on, which I also asked Tom Holland. There was this great interview of Niall Ferguson recently in Convivium magazine, which I think is one of these Catholic publications. Both Douglas Murray and Tom Holland were both quoted extensively, and something that everyone agrees on is that that society needs religion to function. And by religion, I mean it in a very expansive definition, not necessarily a formal or capital ‘R’ religion like Catholicism. I’m using James’ definition of religion5 as some unseen order that we work to bring into being.
So if you can’t actually have liberalism without religion, and if Christianity is the animating religion in question, the problem is that it’s such a directly felt religion (at least in its Protestant forms) that you can’t ‘fake’ it. You can’t force yourself to just practice Christianity and not believe in Christ. It’s a very difficult thing to do. Very brainy, educated people who are raised in secular modernity like Niall Ferguson (I’m putting words in his mouth, but I’m paraphrasing his interview) find it very difficult to believe just because they have to as members of a society.
John Gray wrote a book called Seven Types of Atheism, and he’s also a brainy, philosophical sort who concedes that we need religion, but he can’t bring himself to believe. That’s the big issue with Christianity in modernity: It’s such a deeply-felt personal thing that skews more to the orthodoxic than orthopraxic side of things, it’s difficult to entertain as mere social practice.
Do you agree that Western society needs some sort of animating religion? And if so, given that it’s Christianity in play, what is to be done here?
I think that all societies need it. As a Christian, I believe that all of us were created in the image of God and made for fellowship with God. Every human being is made for fellowship with God. It was Augustine who famously said that our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, oh Lord. Just from a strictly sociological point of view, I agree with Michel Houellebecq (certainly not a religious believer himself) but he’s a devoté of Auguste Comte, who said that he himself was an atheist but societies have to have religion. You have to have this thing that binds you together in the moment as a society, but also binds you to something transcendent.
This is a preview of the Pull Request interview.
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This passage from Augustine concerns the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Goths in 410 AD, when Roman pagans took refuge in Christian churches, thereby saving their own necks thanks to the religion they mocked.
This is I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, which is perhaps the best (and most approachable) review of Girard’s thoughts on Christianity.
The exact quote is: “We are not fighting against single individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. Do not look in materials you have gathered for evidence that a suspect acted or spoke against the Soviet authorities. The first question you should ask him is what class he belongs to, what is his origin, education, profession. These questions should determine his fate. This is the essence of the Red Terror.”
“Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” Matthew 24:34-37.
“Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.