Eastern Democracy was based on Imitation, which confesses others are Superior

08:28
uh the the thesis of the book we were
asking
why is it that democratization produced
a politics of grievance and resistance
and resentment and one the simplest
answer
is that uh democratization was imitation
and imitation
uh uh is associated with the confession
that the other is superior you’re
inferior
and of course that produces resentment
but more
particularly if i could give you just
one i think uh
very revealing example
of how this uh how this developed let’s
take hungary as an example
the hungarians took standard model
thatcherit
privatization which uh uh developed in
the west
they tried they applied it in a society
with no private capital
the consequence of this was in a way we
should have seen it ahead of time
was that managers took the assets of
their enterprises
and uh used that to buy the enterprises
for themselves
creating their own private wealth and uh
this was the beginning of the
development of an appalling inequalities
in these uh in east european societies
post-communist societies unjustifiable
inequalities which were resented but not
only that
the the language of liberalism which is
the language of human rights individual
rights
was not able to capture or to articulate
the grievance uh experienced by those
who watched the public patrimony of
their country
put into the pockets of individuals who
were insiders
so the privatization of polypatrimony
was a uh was was experienced as an abuse
as a
10:09
as a as a crime but it couldn’t be
10:12
articulated in the language
10:13
of individual rights of liberalism and
10:16
indeed
10:17
the language of liberalism particularly
10:18
the language of private property rights
10:20
be uh beca banned blessed or justified
10:24
this process which was widely viewed as
10:27
illegitimate and unjustifiable and and
10:30
of course
10:31
personally painful if you are your best
10:33
friend
10:34
you have two friends uh uh they’re very
10:37
equal one day
10:38
in a couple years one of them is riding
10:40
around in limousines
10:41
the other can’t afford a bus ticket one
10:43
is eating at fish restaurants every
10:45
night the other
10:46
can’t afford a piece of fresh fruit that
10:48
produces resentment so the
10:50
the the westernization process created
10:53
traumas in these societies which we
10:55
didn’t foresee and didn’t predict
10:57
but that was the seedbed for this
11:00
populist revolt against the liberal
11:02
order
11:03
now for those of us who grew up during
11:04
the cold war this is going to sound
11:05
passing strange but there are many on
11:07
the right
11:08
in eastern and central europe that
11:10
consider the european union to be the
11:12
new
11:12
soviet union how can that be
11:15
yeah this is a very strange development
11:17
interesting and kind of
11:18
complicated so the first thing is that
11:21
reform elites
11:23
in eastern europe were very eager to uh
11:26
to join in the accession process to the
11:29
european union
11:30
and therefore accepted the post-national
11:32
rhetoric
11:33
of the european union that if you
11:35
remember was really developed to help
11:37
germany
11:38
overcome its nationalistic past so it
11:40
was a very post-national language
11:42
and that um meant that this these reform
11:46
elites
11:47
were leaving behind in their own country
11:50
national symbols
11:51
national traditions they kind of didn’t
11:53
speak about them
11:54
and therefore when resentment uh or when
11:57
when the west entered into crisis
11:59
particularly in 2008
12:01
and the western model seemed to be less
12:04
than it was cracked up to be
12:05
and to present problems um a counter
12:08
elite emerged
12:09
in eastern europe in central eastern
12:11
europe mostly of provincial origins
12:13
who blamed everything that went wrong
12:17
on the fact that they the reform elite
12:19
had abandoned the nation
12:20
had abandoned national traditions so
12:22
this was a uh
12:24
the the accession process was a viewed
12:26
as a
12:27
betrayal of national authenticity
12:31
uh in in addition there’s another very
12:34
interesting factor which is that the
12:35
european union was
12:36
asking all in and hungary become
12:39
democratic
12:39
you must learn how to become democracies
12:42
like we in the west
12:43
at the same time brussels was saying we
12:46
are going to write all of your laws
12:48
so while you’re becoming democratic
12:50
actually your laws are going to be
12:51
written in brussels
12:52
this produced also resentment and a
12:54
feeling that there is something
12:56
uh perverse or uh arrogant about
12:59
brussels obviously brussels is not
13:02
moscow it doesn’t have a boot
13:04
on their throats but it did it does did
13:06
convey
13:07
a sense of uh superiority judgmentalism
13:10
and then i i need to uh emphasize that
13:13
although
13:14
the west did not impose democracy and
13:18
liberalization
13:19
it did judge the progress of
13:22
democratization and liberalization
13:24
and in a way westerners when they
13:26
visited eastern europe i saw this a lot
13:28
i worked there of course in the 90s
13:30
uh it was as if it’s in the way tourists
13:33
visit a zoo you know
13:34
you go to the zoo you look at the
13:36
primates you say well
13:38
uh they’re like us but they’re lit
13:40
missing something they don’t have an
13:42
opposable thumb
13:43
or they don’t have the rule of law so
13:45
you’re kind of saying you’re you’re kind
13:46
of a copy of us but you’re not a very
13:48
good copy
13:49
and probably you’ll never be much good
13:51
so there was a feeling of
13:52
being looked down upon uh which also
13:55
stirred resentment uh and let me just
13:59
say one other thing about
14:00
i think authenticity the sense these
14:02
populists are claiming that they
14:04
are those in touch with the authentic
14:06
tradition which has been
14:08
lost by westernization and
14:10
democratization so
14:12
in 1989 uh it’s clear that the
14:16
nationalists were allied with the
14:19
liberals in the revolt against moscow’s
14:21
empire
14:22
so in poland there was a lot of
14:24
basically trying to get away from russia
14:25
was a very important motivation now they
14:28
didn’t
14:29
speak the language of nationalism at the
14:31
time probably because it was not a
14:32
language welcome in brussels
14:34
but also because this was the period of
14:36
milosevic you know the bloody side of
14:38
nationalism and milosevic was a
14:40
communist communist so a man like
14:42
kaczynski would never
14:43
echo milosevic so there was the language
14:46
of nationalism was subdued
14:49
and when after 2008 2014 the immigration
14:52
crisis
14:53
these populist knees near felt freed
14:56
from having to
14:57
to cover their nationalism with the
14:59
language of liberalism so
15:01
it it it had felt like a kind of cage
15:04
in which they were trapped and they
15:06
broke out of it
15:07
and returned to this kind of nativist uh
15:10
way of feeling which had always been
15:12
there but had been muffled so it was
15:15
that’s part of the why populism seems
15:18
authentic to them
15:19
well let’s extend your metaphor a little
15:22
further if we want to talk about the
15:24
number one primate in the zoo boy this
15:26
is a terrible analogy
15:28
uh should we ask about russia here why
15:30
didn’t i i mean
15:31
the the many of the central and eastern
15:33
european countries did sort of flirt
15:35
with
15:35
liberal democracy for a while before
15:38
adopting illiberal democracy that they
15:40
have today but russia never did
15:41
why why did russia never try it well i
15:44
mean first of all you have to remember
15:45
that in the soviet union
15:46
elites have been have found it very easy
15:49
to
15:50
fake democracy have fake elections
15:52
because they’ve been faking communism
15:53
for at least two decades before
15:55
uh they were sort of dressed up this way
15:58
let’s pretend we’re having to
15:59
have elections these are all rigged of
16:01
course uh
16:02
and uh we know he’s going to win and
16:04
there’s not really any competition
16:06
that was very easy for them to do they
16:07
also in russia by the way
16:10
they they had a communist training told
16:12
them that democracy is just
16:14
a trick by which elites uh deceive their
16:17
publics
16:18
and hold on to power capitalism is just
16:20
really an elite project to
16:22
exploit the working classes and so on so
16:25
they were
16:25
very comfortable with that idea of
16:27
capitalist democracy
16:29
but in the end basically uh russia
16:33
was so injured i mean the main thing to
16:36
understand about the russian
16:37
situation is they lost huge part of
16:40
their territory
16:41
uh a huge number of their population
16:43
they lost their superpower status it was
16:45
a
16:46
it was a huge injury to the self-image
16:48
of russians which was not true in
16:49
eastern europe that they didn’t
16:51
eastern europeans didn’t have this
16:52
imperial swagger this imperial
16:54
claims that they were you know on the
16:57
top of the world
16:58
uh and actually exporting their own
17:01
model
17:01
elsewhere so that was a very strong and
17:04
i think the so the russians for
17:06
a couple decades were pretty happy with
17:08
just faking democracy and
17:10
but in the end as putin came to power
17:13
the resentment of being treated as
17:16
second-class
17:16
citizens as being looked down upon as
17:18
being taught lessons
17:20
by the west boiled over and uh the
17:23
russians
17:24
went from this like faking a democracy
17:28
to a what we call aggressive imitation
17:31
uh that is
17:32
imitation of the west which is designed
17:35
to humiliate the west
17:36
uh which is designed to show that the
17:38
west is hypocritical so for example
17:41
in the speech he gave putin gave
17:44
justifying the annexation of
17:46
crimea he basically imitated word for
17:49
word
17:49
uh western speeches about the
17:51
independence of kosovo
17:53
human rights national self-determination
17:56
and so forth but this was
17:57
very much a kind of imitation meant to
18:00
expose the west’s
18:01
hypocrisy and uh yes i think that’s
18:05
i think that’s a good uh way to
18:07
understand the putin regime which is not
18:09
people often uh act as if putin is a
18:12
great strategist and it is true that
18:13
he’s played
18:14
beforehand well but he’s not a great
18:16
strategist his
18:17
his main aim which is not strategic and
18:20
is not
18:21
helping russia redevelop itself is to
18:24
expose the west as hypocritical that’s
18:26
his
18:26
obsession uh and i think that’s a
18:29
blind alley that’s a dead end maybe a
18:31
blind alley but most days of the week
18:33
it’s not that hard to do
18:34
whoops there’s my little editorial
18:36
comment uh let me try this
18:39
do we have to come to the unhappy
18:40
conclusion therefore
18:42
that liberalism as we understand it is
18:45
really not exportable
18:47
to cultures that are if i can put it
18:49
this way wired differently
18:51
from those of us in the west i think
18:54
one of the big lessons of the 2003 war
18:58
in iraq
18:59
is that uh trying to impose a
19:02
democratic system after a six-week
19:04
military campaign
19:05
in a country where three-quarters of the
19:06
population married their first cousin
19:08
and so
19:08
it’s a completely different social world
19:10
you can’t just you know uh
19:12
impose something like this and that that
19:15
was such a lesson even though
19:16
our uh uh international internationalist
19:21
humanitarian internationals uh went over
19:24
there
19:25
with the uh crude and i think uh
19:28
defenseless uh idea that the only
19:31
legitimate authority with whom we are
19:33
going to deal are going to be authority
19:35
that’s elected
19:36
i think it’s very good to help so the
19:38
listeners to contrast what
19:40
how we behaved in afghanistan and how
19:42
the americans behaved in afghanistan and
19:44
how they behaved
19:45
in iraq and afghanistan we had been
19:47
there for decades we
19:49
knew all the warlords we didn’t say to
19:51
the warlords you must be elected
19:53
before we negotiate with you but in iraq
19:56
the religious leaders the tribal shakes
19:57
were set aside we had this
19:59
fake ideological belief that we have to
20:02
create authority by elections which of
20:04
course is a
20:05
is a uh it is based on historical
20:08
ignorance
20:09
democracy is a tiny spot in human
20:11
history
20:12
it has cute enormously complicated
20:14
preconditions
20:16
it doesn’t we we’re confusing the
20:18
absence of obstacles with the presence
20:20
of preconditions we thought if you get
20:21
rid of saddam
20:22
you’re going to have democracy just like
20:24
if you get rid of communist elite you’re
20:26
going to have democracy
20:27
and this was an illusion it’s a
20:29
democratic ideology that
20:31
idea was uh is is is it
20:34
uh uh ex exposes a kind of disgraceful
20:38
historical ignorance which was uh at the
20:41
basis of much of american foreign policy
20:44
in the post-cold war era we’ve got about
20:46
five minutes to go here so let me try a
20:48
couple more questions with you
20:49
your book now suggests that we’ve
20:51
entered an age of illiberal
20:53
imitation how do you see that
20:56
well it’s a strange uh fact that uh
21:00
president trump seems to be uh uh
21:03
accepting putin’s uh a strategic goal of
21:07
dismantling the european union
21:09
of destroying all of the international
21:11
organizations created by the united
21:12
states after world war
21:14
ii uh and he’s at war not only with the
21:17
wto the who in
21:19
all the world america made seems to be
21:21
uh uh
21:22
the liberal world order seems to be
21:24
something that trump himself
21:26
is uh attacking so that is a a kind of
21:29
imitation of and he’s using the rhetoric
21:32
nationalist rhetoric anti-immigrant
21:33
rhetoric
21:34
of orban and kaczynski uh and the
21:38
anti-western
21:39
uh language and also by the way
21:42
uh he’s the first american president who
21:45
has not said we deserve to rule the
21:47
world because we’re morally superior
21:49
i mean that’s a kind of not a very
21:52
likable uh uh position to take but every
21:55
american president has taken that
21:57
basically
21:58
trump says no no we’re just like
21:59
everyone else uh
22:01
well what i was personally don’t you
22:03
think
22:04
is that again be a tough case for him
22:06
personally to make it
22:07
imitate him personally yes i would say
22:10
but he of course
22:11
his basic uh thing is he resents
22:14
this is sort of the trump world view is
22:16
he resents terribly
22:18
the countries that imitate our uh
22:21
economic productivity
22:22
or or are horning in on our market share
22:25
and so on so
22:26
he’s a person who has claimed i think
22:28
the first american president ever
22:30
to say that america is the greatest
22:33
victim of the americanization
22:34
of the world so that’s part of it but i
22:37
wouldn’t like uh to say a word about
22:40
uh the current crisis we’re in and i’m
22:43
i’ve been asking myself and my colleague
22:45
yvonne krustev
22:46
we’ve been speaking about this as well
22:48
what does the was the current pandemic
22:51
tell us about the trauma of liberalism
22:54
and the the competition between
22:56
liberalism and populism
22:57
uh because in a way uh the
23:01
the previous crises of liberalism 19
23:04
uh the uh 2001 in which it turned out
23:07
that
23:08
defending human rights the whole uh idea
23:11
of defending human rights as the primary
23:12
value
23:13
seemed to give way to the battle against
23:15
terrorism in which rights were viewed as
23:17
a trojan horse for our enemies
23:19
2008 which really showed that our
23:22
economic elite
23:23
i didn’t know what it was doing so that
23:25
also uh really hurt our prestige to uh
23:28
2014
23:29
in which the migrant crisis uh made
23:32
people feel like open borders
23:33
were a threat to western civilization
23:36
and so on all these things have
23:37
combined and and we’re under a
23:40
uh we’re living in a time where those
23:43
three crises have seemed to be
23:45
accumulating in the present one
23:46
and weakening the liberal commitment to
23:50
globalization and so forth
23:51
openness uh at the same time
23:54
every political order has its own
23:57
disorders and populism
23:59
is producing its own discontents and
24:01
these populist leaders
24:02
bolsonaro trump authoritarians like
24:05
putin
24:06
strangely enough they are very afraid of
24:09
this crisis
24:10
they are not you know taking hold of it
24:12
and using it
24:13
to uh to uh uh to their benefit
24:16
uh there’s a way in which this kind of
24:19
crisis has
24:20
uh had is is challenging any kind of
24:23
regime
24:24
the archaeon regimes we saw that in
24:25
china where they’re hiding evidence
24:27
we see it in the west some some
24:29
democratic societies have done well some
24:31
authoritarian societies have done okay
24:33
it doesn’t seem to fit well into our
24:36
ideological
24:37
uh polarities so i think that’s and the
24:39
way i would put this in the end the
24:40
question open to us
24:42
is now in the future is is the pandemic
24:45
going to
24:46
increase our reliance on science and
24:49
rationality
24:50
belief in fact consciousness or is it
24:53
going to
24:54
uh create a uh is the panic
24:57
of and fear going to lead to more
25:00
conspiracy theories
25:01
uh and more xenophobia uh uh
25:04
migrant bashing uh so we’re on a knife’s
25:08
edge
25:08
i think and the the fate of the liberal
25:11
model and the liberal commitment to
25:13
rational decision making
25:14
uh and uh the uh uh
25:17
and its competition with these populist
25:21
myth makers
25:22
sloganeers who are always trying to sell
25:24
something has not been decided
25:26
i definitely do not think the populists
25:29
have the upper hand
25:30
i think the populists are also
25:32
struggling and they’re
25:33
not finding this an easy crisis to deal
25:36
with
25:36
so although i don’t believe that the
25:39
west is covering itself with glory
25:41
either
25:42
uh the whale and liberal regimes are
25:44
also struggling because
25:46
uh the the disease is hard to understand
25:49
and it’s hard to master
25:50
i i definitely don’t believe that uh the
25:54
current crisis is going to
25:56
really decide the question in favor of
26:00
of the populists well why don’t i
26:02
freelance then and just uh re-title your
26:05
book the light that’s failed
26:07
so far and we’ll leave it there uh
26:10
i want to thank you very much professor
26:11
holmes for joining us on tvo tonight
26:13
congratulations again on your gelber
26:15
prize
26:15
uh for anybody who wants to pick it up
26:17
yvonne krastieff and stephen holmes
26:18
collaborated on the light
26:20
that failed are reckoning take good care
26:22
and thanks for joining us on tvo tonight
26:25
thank you steve
26:30
the agenda with steve pakin is brought
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to you by the chartered professional
26:33
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26:35
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26:45
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26:49

American Paganism

It’s not what the Religious Right thinks it is.

Claims of moral decline are a perennial feature of conservative rhetoric. But in recent years, pro-Trump Christians have emphasized a new reason to be afraid. The United States, they say, is devolving into such wanton “paganism” that the country may not survive. The true America awaits rescue by the Christian faithful, and in such an existential struggle, nearly any means are justified—even reelecting a morally abhorrent president.

Examples of this rhetoric are not in short supply, among pundits and even in more scholarly work. In an essay praising Donald Trump’s “animal instinct” for “order” and “social cohesion,” Sohrab Ahmari opposed an America of “traditional Christianity” to one of “libertine ways and paganized ideology.” These are our only choices, he insisted. Between such incompatible enemies, there can be only “war and enmity,” so true believers should be ready to sacrifice civility in the battles ahead to reconquer the public squareRod Dreher has speculated that Trump, while unpalatable, could be a divine emissary holding back the horrors of Christian persecution, like the biblical figure of He Who Delays the Antichrist, an implicit nod to old pagan enemies. “If Christians like me vote for Trump in 2020,” Dreher warns, “it is only because of his role as katechon in restraining what is far worse.” Though in a calmer tone, Ross Douthat entertained similar ideas in his column “The Return of Paganism,” wondering if the pantheist tendencies in American civil religion could morph into a neo-paganism hostile to Christian faith.

Douthat cites a recent book by law professor Steven D. Smith, Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. According to Smith, what we know as “secularismis actually ancient paganism in modern guise. Since paganism is inherently anti-Christian, this means Christians should oppose both secular politics and secular universities at any cost. They are not fighting against a neutral arbiter, but against the wiles of pagan Rome redivivus, a strain of this-worldly sexualized spirituality nearly eradicated by Christianity, but now mutated and all the more lethal.

Smith is only the most recent Christian author to invoke the specter of paganism. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, wrote Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society on the eve of the 2016 election, apparently anticipating a Clinton victory. The book’s title alludes to T. S. Eliot’s 1938 essay on “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in which Eliot condemns the rise of “modern paganism.” Reno told his readers to view 2016 in light of 1938. “Would the West seek a Christian future or a pagan one?” he asked. “We face a similar decision today. Will we seek to live in accord with the idea of a Christian society, or will we accept the tutelage of a pagan society?” Yuval Levin called Reno’s book a “call to arms against a postmodern paganism.”

This charge of looming paganism exerts a twofold political function. First, it

  1. rationalizes Trumpism, casting our situation as a state of emergency that threatens the survival of U.S. Christians.
  2. Second, the sacrilege of pagan religion prevents Trump’s supporters from indulging in political moderation by making that seem like a form of apostasy. It’s probably not a coincidence that “paganism” is on the rise just as Christian conservatives decide whether to support the current administration in an election year. It is challenging to explain how Trump’s policies are Christian. It is far easier to label his opponents as pagans, and thus align the president with Christianity by default. But there are fundamental problems with the conservative narrative of a resurgent paganism.

In the first place, the term “paganism” only works in this maneuver because it is vague and perspectival. It always has been, ever since Christians invented it. Ancient Christians stuck the name on those who continued the traditional rites of Greco-Roman religion rather than adopt the true faith. Indeed the largely urban Christians meant it as a mild pejorative for the rural country bumpkins, the pagani, who lived far from imperial centers and persisted in their benighted worship of the old gods. In our terms, the first “pagans” lived in flyover country and clung to their traditional religion. 

Since “pagan” has come to mean “un-Christian,” every invocation of “pagan” brings with it an implicit understanding of “Christian.” The meaning of the former is parasitic on the latter. Misunderstanding the essence of paganism, therefore, also means misunderstanding the demands of Christianity, and vice versa.

More left-leaning Christians might well agree with Smith and Reno in one sense: there is indeed an ascendant paganism afoot in our country today. It threatens the social and moral fabric of American public life and contends directly against the voice of Christian truth. One can brook no compromise in resisting it. The difference comes in how that paganism is defined. The debate is not whether paganism is real, but where it lives, how it appears, and what it does. If conservatives have mistaken its location, they might be training their weapons in the wrong direction.

Much hangs, then, on accurately discerning the meaning of “modern paganism.” Let us consider three proposals: Steven Smith’s recent version, T. S. Eliot’s original version, and another timely version from First Things.

Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of divine immanence in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.

Steven Smith suggests that secularism is not a neutral space, but conceals its own religious identity, which is essentially pagan. It venerates the sacred within the natural world, knows only the cycle of birth and death, and thus celebrates a libertine sexuality. As opposed to Abrahamic religions that affirm the “transcendent sacred,” paganisms old and new prefer the “immanent sacred.” Smith delves into the emergence of Christians in the Roman Empire and vividly evokes the oddity of Christianity in the ancient world, heeding the scholarship of Peter Brown, Jan Assmann, and Kyle Harper (but Edward Gibbon most of all). Smith then applies his ancient model to American constitutional law and finds it confirms conservative positions on religious freedom, public symbols, and sexual norms.

But there are serious problems with Smith’s argument. Since the 1970s, scholars of religion have largely retired the vague categories formerly used to organize speculation about comparative religions—sacred and secular, immanent and transcendent, holy and profane, this-worldly and other-worldly. Major religious traditions are massive and multifarious in the ways they sustain rituals, ethics, and beliefs. Their communities cut across languages, continents, empires, and epochs, teeming with exceptions and discontinuities. The blunt tools applied by Smith are simply not up to the task of uncovering the essence of one religion, let alone two or three, and they are certainly not able to trace the notoriously complicated history of the “secular.”

For the sake of argument, though, let us grant Smith his chosen terms, and even focus on his central claim, that Christianity can lead the way in challenging modern secularity, since it insists on the “transcendent sacred” in a way that secular paganism does not. Smith’s proposal rests upon a fundamental analogy: paganism is to Christianity as immanence is to transcendence. Christians pray to the God beyond the world; pagans encounter divinity inside the weft of nature.

Even a cursory knowledge of Christianity is enough to refute this analogy. It is true that Judaism teaches the absolute transcendence of the one God, as do Islamic theologians today, and as did Neoplatonist pagan philosophers in antiquity who sought a divine One beyond every thought, word, and image. By contrast, orthodox Christians claim that God arrived and now eternally resides within the fabric of nature, as the Creator enters into creation in the body of Jesus Christ. To cite Smith’s definition of “paganism,” it is Christianity, in fact, that “refers to a religious orientation that locates the sacred within this world.” The Christian belief in the Incarnation is nothing if not a belief in the “immanent sacred.”

The new Christian movement distinguished itself from Greek philosophy, Roman cults, and Jewish faith alike by affirming an extensive and peculiar list of divine incursions into immanence: the Incarnation of God in the body of Jesus; Anne’s immaculate conception of Mary; Mary’s virginal conception and vaginal birth of the Son of God, making her Theotokos; the real flesh of Jesus suffering on the cross, against the Gnostics (Tertullian); the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine, also against the Gnostics; the Resurrection of the body after death; the bodily assumption of Mary; the martyrdom of the body as bloody birth into heaven (Perpetua) or as the grinding of flesh into bread (Ignatius of Antioch); the church birthed through the bleeding side wound of a dying Jesus; the church as maternal breast suckling the Christian with milk; the union of Christ and Christians as the exemplar of which sexual union is the image (Ephesians 5, Origen of Alexandria). Above all, the scandalous immanence that might have sounded pagan to Jesus’s disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6). The enemy of these traditional Christian teachings is not sacred immanence, but rather a gnosticism that dematerializes and disembodies the real presence of God within creation.

The radically immanent sacred of Christians scandalized the Romans. As Ramsay MacMullen observes, Christians worshipping a new transcendent deity would have passed unremarked. But the Christian belief that Jesus was neither prophet nor sage but a fleshly God would have been mocked by pagan intellectuals as a risible error. The late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes: “In the philosophical traditions, an ultimate and radically transcendent deity was often postulated, but you did not typically engage that transcendent deity directly.… But there was a still more unusual and, in the eyes of pagan sophisticates, outlandish Christian notion: the one, true, august God who transcended all things and had no need of anything, nevertheless, had deigned to create this world and, a still more remarkable notion, also now actively sought the redemption and reconciliation of individuals.” For pagan intellectuals, Hurtado concludes, “all this was, quite simply, preposterous.”

For instance, in his work On the True Doctrine (178 CE), the pagan philosopher Celsus is ready to accept that God exists, creates all things, and transcends nature. But in shades of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Celsus laughs away the claim that God was incarnated in Jesus, or that the body could be resurrected. “I mean, what sort of body is it that could return to its original nature or become the same as it was before it rotted away?” he mocks. “And of course they have no reply for this one, and as in most cases where there is no reply they take cover by saying ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ A brilliant answer indeed! But the fact is, God cannot do what is contrary to nature.”

Christian philosophers saw the divide similarly. Tertullian admits that pagan philosophers might even discern that God exists by their own lights. But they always miss that God descended into a virgin and was made flesh in her womb. Augustine reports that he learned from the pagan philosopher Plotinus that the Logos was transcendent—but only Christians taught him how the Logos embraced the human body in all of its weakness and vulnerability, and its awful exposure to the whims of imperial violence.

To put it bluntly: paganism cannot simply mean divine immanence. On the contrary, Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of that principle in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.

The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by T.S. Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny.

A better starting point for defining “paganism” is T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” written in the dark days of 1938, where he proposes that the greatest enemy of modern Christianity is “modern paganism.” Reno and Smith alike summon Eliot as a sober authority in perilous times, but neither presents Eliot’s own account of the term in question. So how did Eliot define paganism? It’s important to stay as close as possible to his own words.

First, Eliot says paganism embraces an authoritarian politics that confuses religion and nationhood. The “distinguishing mark” of a Christian society, Eliot writes, is its productive “tension” between church and state, but pagan society seeks to “fuse” them. Pagan culture “de-Christianises” individuals gradually and unwittingly, as authoritarianism creeps in. Soon, he warns, one’s hymns are no longer to God alone, but also to the dear leader.

Second, Eliot says that modern paganism incites ecological destruction. The Christian lives in harmony with nature; the pagan destroys public resources for private profit. “Unregulated industrialism” and “the exhaustion of natural resources,” writes Eliot, lead to “the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale.” In a formulation that strikingly anticipates Laudato si’, he puts it succinctly: “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.

Third, modern paganism imposes a puritanical public morality. It promotes, in Eliot’s words, “regimentation and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual soul” and “the puritanism of a hygienic morality in the interest of efficiency.” According to Eliot, in fact, modern paganism will even attempt to elevate the status of Christian identity in society. But paganism embraces Christianity not because it’s true, but because it consolidates the nation and discourages dissent. He notes that authoritarians have always celebrated public morality. They want, in a way, more morality, even if their priorities are haphazardly formulated. Eliot warns that such a moralistic Christianity is not only a perversion of the faith: “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” Such versions of Christianity might even “engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”

The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny. The “paganism” that future Christians will need to identify and resist, he warned, will appear as

  • unrestrained capitalist greed; as
  • authoritarianism seeking to weaken democratic norms; as
  • callous environmental degradation; as a
  • superficial Christian moralism seeking to fuse church and state; and as a
  • petty “sanctimonious nationalism.” 

In the poignant final paragraph of his essay, Eliot confesses that the churning political surprises of the 1930s had left him shaken, not only because of the events themselves, but in the revelation of his own country’s moral poverty. In the face of Britain’s failure to mount an adequate response to modern pagan violence, Eliot felt a justified “humiliation” that demanded of him “personal contrition” along with “repentance, and amendment.” He felt “deeply implicated and responsible” and began to question his country’s frequent claims to moral authority. When Eliot enjoins his readers to fight against modern paganism, it is specifically because its brew of authoritarianism and capitalism were already beginning to charm Christian intellectuals who should know better. Eliot’s final sentences prick the conscience today:

We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends? Such thoughts as these formed the starting point, and must remain the excuse, for saying what I have to say.

The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of will.

But there was at least one other account of paganism in the pages of First Things as Trump campaigned for the presidency—this time from Matthew Schmitz, an editor at the magazine. Over the summer of 2016, Schmitz displayed an admirable prescience while Christian conservatives were still hesitating to endorse the eventual Republican nominee. The “faith taught by Christ,” he wrote, “is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord.… In Trump, it [Christian faith] has curdled into pagan disdain.”

Schmitz’s analyses from April and August of 2016 really must be considered at length, given where they were published. Take this representative passage:

At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one…. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his ­fellow men.

And here’s another:

In his contempt for losers, he [Trump] embodies one of the most unchristian ideals ever advanced in American politics. With a unique consistency and vehemence, he expresses his hatred of weakness. He ridicules the disabled, attacks women, and defends abortionists. This is the opposite of Christianity, which puts the weak first and exalts every loser…. Liberalism, much as I hate it, has preserved this Christian inheritance. The GOP before Trump, despite all its contempt for the 47 percent, was leavened by the influence of sincere Christians and so was never so sneering. Trump is an altogether more pagan figure.

By 2019, however, in the wake of the midterm battles over immigration and the mythic “caravan” of refugees at the southern border, Schmitz joined others to cheer on the “new nationalism” that Trump promoted at his rallies. Within a few months, Schmitz had decided that Christianity and liberalism could never be reconciled, since modern society—wait for it—had become paganized. “The Church,” he now saw, “is at odds with an increasingly pagan culture.”

If there was an ancient paganism of sacred immanence, it was soon outstripped by the more radical immanence of Christians in their claims of an Incarnation, a Resurrection, and above all the enduring food of the Eucharist. In every Mass the priest washes his hands in imitation of the pagan Pilate, but now as an act of humility and celebration. The  Catholic repeats as her own the words of the pagan centurion—Lord, I am not worthy—but now as an intimate prayer on the threshold of Communion. That version of paganism was overtaken and dissolved from within by the Christian sacralization of the body.

But there is another paganism that has survived into the present, and has emerged so vividly in contemporary politics that even First Things in 2016 could not miss it. This is not the paganism of immanence, but the paganism of cruelty and violence. It mocks the vulnerable, reviles the weak, and gains strength through hatred. We don’t have to look too far to discover the “postmodern paganism” threatening American Christianity today. 

Last summer the Trump administration argued in court that more than two thousand migrant and refugee children should be separated from their parents, concentrated in crude detention camps with minimal supervision, and locked in chilled rooms with the lights left on all night. The administration has yet to condemn the petty cruelty of some camp guards and instead has mused that such violence might be politically useful. Hundreds of children as young as two are deliberately denied diapers, soap, and toothbrushes for months at a time to punish their parents. Community donations of the same are turned away. Young women are denied tampons. Young children are denied inexpensive flu vaccines, and if they contract a terminal cancer, they are deported without medical care. Chickenpox and shingles are common. Federal contractors win upwards of $700 per day for each imprisoned child. Seven children have died in custody to date, and many more have been hospitalized. Doctors worry they cannot serve in the camps without violating the Hippocratic oath. The camps themselves were continued from the Obama administration, but the withdrawal of basic necessities is Trump’s innovation. What is this if not the very paganism conservatives decry?

This modern paganism ultimately means the nihilistic exercise of power for its own sake, especially power over weak and vulnerable bodies. In its purest form, it is expressed as conspicuous cruelty, both to render one’s power maximally visible and to increase that power by engendering fear. The cruelty is the point. This is the joyful paganism that Nietzsche sought to revive as the Wille zur Macht, retrieving from ancient Rome the glorious pleasure in cruelty that rewards the strong who exercise their strength. This is the reason Italian fascist Julius Evola hated Christianity for its compassion for the poor and weak.

We find this paganism exposed in the ancient world as well, in the Athenian mockery and massacre of the Melians in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, in Thrasymachus’s authoritarian attacks on Socrates in Plato’s Republic, or in Augustine’s shrewd deconstruction of imperial power in The City of God against the Pagans. John Milbank calls this Nietzschean worldview an ontology of eternal violence opposed to an Augustinian counter-ontology of eternal peace. As Schmitz himself suggests, the perfect example of pagan disdain for vulnerability and conspicuous cruelty is the Roman practice of public crucifixion. Pagan is to Christian not as immanent is to transcendent, but as Rome is to the Crucified—a cruel empire to its tortured victims.

But modern paganism can also assume subtler forms, whenever the common good is reduced to ruthless economic competition, confirming Eliot’s fears that we have no values more essential than our “belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends.” The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of wills, a nihilism ruled by the libido dominandi.

This paganism views moral responsibility as a fool’s errand for the weak, since all that matters is to dominate or be dominated. It sacralizes the emperor as an agent of God, scorns truth, despises the weak, and tortures the vulnerable. And it cloaks its nihilism, to cite Eliot once again, in “a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”

How To Argue (But Not Fight) With A Narcissist

Because narcissists are so dominant and controlling, they have a knack for steering relationships into conflict. Do you have a game plan for handling yourself as potential arguments arise? Psychotherapist Dr. Les Carter discusses developing a mindset that will serve you wisely in the midst of that conflict.

Five Types of High-Conflict Personalities

High-conflict personalities are fundamentally adversarial personalities. They don’t see their part in their own problems and instead are preoccupied with blaming others—possibly you. In this blog series, I offer many tips for dealing with high-conflict people (HCPs). Today, I describe the basic features of 5 types of high-conflict personalities, so that you can be aware of them, in order to avoid them or deal with them more effectively.

They all have the basic HCP pattern of:

1) Targets of Blame,

2) a lot of all-or-nothing thinking,

3) unmanaged emotions and

4) extreme behaviors.

In addition, they also have traits of 5 personality disorders. Some may just have traits and others have a full disorder. This can make them very difficult, but also more predictable. Here is a very brief overview of some of their common patterns of behavior:

1. Antisocial HCPs: These are also known as sociopaths or psychopathsaggressive people without a conscience. Antisocial personalities can be extremely charming and deceptive, combined with being extremely cruel to get what they want. Antisocial HCPs blame their Targets for causing their many frustrations, interfering with their schemes or simply because they got in the way. They are con artists, often involved in criminal schemes and loyal to no one—not even each other. (This does not include people who just “don’t feel social” this weekend.)

They punish their Targets in relationships and then expect sex and affection even after hurting them. They seem to be more biologically energized to harm people without remorse. For example, the Texas shooter in yesterday’s mass church shooting was reportedly angry at his estranged wife’s parents, and so went to kill everyone at the church they attended. Would he fit here?

2. Narcissistic HCPs: Most people are familiar with the self-absorption of narcissistic personalities, but narcissistic HCPs focus intensely on their Targets of Blame. They are constantly putting them down, often in public, in an effort to prove they are superior beings. They use a lot of insults with their partners, yet at the same time they demand admiration and affection. They claim their behavior is justified because others treat them so unfairly. Yet they have no real empathy for their Targets of Blame or anyone else. In the workplace, they are known for “kicking down” (on those below them) and “kissing up” (to those above them), so that management won’t realize how bad they really are. Bullying and sexual harassment may fit right into their drive for power and superiority.

3. Borderline HCPs: They are preoccupied with their close relationships and cling to them. However, sooner or later they will treat their partners, children, parents, co-workers, bosses, and others as Targets of Blame for any perceived abandonment. Their rages can be quite dangerous: physically, emotionally, legally, financially, reputationally or otherwise. Yet their moods swing both ways, so you may feel whip-sawed by how quickly they go from friendly to rage to friendly again (and then rage again).

As a therapist and lawyer, I have seen many borderline HCPs fighting for custody in family court against their Targets of Blame with extreme behavior including domestic violence, child alienation and/or false allegations. They are both men and women, driven to cling to their children (and each other) to avoid feelings of abandonment.

4. Paranoid HCPs: They can be suspicious of everyone around them, and believe there are conspiracies to block their careers at work, their friendships and their family relationships. They can carry grudges for years, and then punish their Targets of Blame. Paranoid HCPs may believe that those around them are about to harm them, so they may pre-emptively attack their Targets. They easily feel treated unjustly and in the workplace, some experts say “the majority of lawsuits are filed by this type of coworker.” (Cavaiola & Lavender, 2000)

5. Histrionic HCPs: This personality is most often associated with drama and endless emotional stories. Yet histrionic HCPs often accuse their Targets of Blame of exaggerated or fabricated behavior, to hurt them or to manipulate them. They assume relationships are deeper than they are so that they are constantly feeling surprised and hurt by how others react to them. They demand to be the center of attention and attack their Targets of Blame when they are not. They often involve others in their many complaints, which can lead to public accusations and humiliation for their Targets of Blame.

Overview: None of these HCP personality patterns have anything to do with intelligence, as they range from super smart to not very smart at all, like the rest of the population. There are some personality disorders in every occupation, geographic region (although slightly more in urban areas) and income group (although lower income has slightly more, the higher income ones can attract more attention).

It’s important to note that many people with personality disorders are not HCPs, which means that they do not have Targets of Blame who they attack or purposely injure. But if you see someone with a high-conflict personality, the fact that they also have traits of a personality disorder means that they are unlikely to have insight into their own behavior and unlikely to change. This means that you should be careful to avoid the mistakes I mentioned in my last blog. You also may want to consider using the methods I describe in the coming weeks.

 

Christ in Paul’s Eyes: A Bigger Story (Richard Rohr)

As a rule, Christians were more interested in the superiority of our own group or nation than we were in the wholeness of creation. Our view of reality was largely imperial, patriarchal, and dualistic. Things were seen as either for us or against us, and we were either winners or losers, totally good or totally bad—such a small self and its personal salvation remained Christianity’s overwhelming preoccupation up to now. This is surely how our religion became so focused on obedience and conformity, instead of on love in any practical or expanding sense.

Without a Shared and Big Story, all humans retreat into private individualism for a bit of sanity and safety.

Perhaps the primary example of Christians’ lack of attention to the Christ Mystery can be seen in the way we continue to pollute and ravage planet Earth, the very thing we all stand on and live from. Science now appears to love and respect physicality more than most religion does! No wonder that science and business have taken over as the major explainers of meaning for most people today (even many who still go to church). Christians did not take this world seriously, I am afraid, because our notion of God or salvation didn’t include or honor the physical universe. And now, I am afraid, the world does not take Christianity seriously.

Beginner’s Mind (Richard Rohr)

I’d like to offer some spiritual advice so that you can read Scripture the way that Jesus did and use it for good purposes.

Offer a prayer for guidance from the Holy Spirit before you make your interpretation of an important text. With an open heart and mind, seek the attitude of a beginner and learner. Pray as long as it takes to feel any certitudes loosen.

Once you have attained some degree of openness, try to move to a position of detachment from your own egoic will and its goals and desires—to be correct, to be secure, to stay with the familiar. This might take some time, but without such freedom from your own need for control, you will invariably make a text say what you need and want it to say.

Then you must listen for a deeper voice than your own, which you will know because it will never shame or frighten you, but rather strengthen you, even when it is challenging you. If it is God’s voice, it will take away your illusions and your violence so completely and so naturally that you can barely identify with such previous feelings! I call this God’s replacement therapy. God does not ask and expect you to do anything new until God has first made it desirable and possible for you to do it. Grace cannot easily operate under coercion, duress, shame, or guilt.

If your understanding of Scripture leads you to experience any or several of the fruits of the Spirit—

  1. love,
  2. joy,
  3. peace,
  4. patience,
  5. kindness,
  6. goodness,
  7. trustfulness,
  8. gentleness, and
  9. self-control

(Galatians 5:22-23)—I think you can trust that this interpretation is from the Spirit, from the deeper stream of wisdom.

As you read, if you sense any negative or punitive emotions like

  1. morose delight,
  2. feelings of superiority,
  3. self-satisfaction,
  4. arrogant dualistic certitude,
  5. desire for revenge,
  6. need for victory, or
  7. a spirit of dismissal or exclusion,

you must trust that this is not Jesus’ hermeneutic at work, but your own ego still steering the ship.

Remember the temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:3-10). Three temptations to the misuse of power are listed:

  1. economic,
  2. religious, and
  3. political.

Even Jesus must face these subtle disguises before he begins his public ministry. Only when he has found freedom from his own egoic need for power can Jesus teach with true inner authority and speak truth to the oppressive powers of his time.

Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think

And a backlash against liberals — a backlash that most liberals don’t seem to realize they’re causing — is going to get President Trump re-elected.

People often vote against things instead of voting for them: against ideas, candidates and parties. Democrats, like Republicans, appreciate this whenever they portray their opponents as negatively as possible. But members of political tribes seem to have trouble recognizing that they, too, can push people away and energize them to vote for the other side. Nowhere is this more on display today than in liberal control of the commanding heights of American culture.

.. Liberals dominate the entertainment industry, many of the most influential news sources and America’s universities. This means that people with progressive leanings are everywhere in the public eye — and are also on the college campuses attended by many people’s children or grandkids. These platforms come with a lot of power to express values, confer credibility and celebrity and start national conversations that others really can’t ignore.

But this makes liberals feel more powerful than they are. Or, more accurately, this kind of power is double-edged. Liberals often don’t realize how provocative or inflammatory they can be. In exercising their power, they regularly not only persuade and attract but also annoy and repel.

In fact, liberals may be more effective at causing resentment than in getting people to come their way. I’m not talking about the possibility that jokes at the 2011 correspondents’ association dinner may have pushed Mr. Trump to run for president to begin with. I mean that the “army of comedy” that Michael Moore thought would bring Mr. Trump down will instead be what builds him up in the minds of millions of voters.

.. Some liberals have gotten far out ahead of their fellow Americans but are nonetheless quick to criticize those who haven’t caught up with them.

.. Liberals denounce “cultural appropriation” without, in many cases, doing the work of persuading people that there is anything wrong with, say, a teenager not of Chinese descent wearing a Chinese-style dress to prom or eating at a burrito cart run by two non-Latino women.

.. Pressing a political view from the Oscar stage, declaring a conservative campus speaker unacceptable, flatly categorizing huge segments of the country as misguided — these reveal a tremendous intellectual and moral self-confidence that smacks of superiority. It’s one thing to police your own language and a very different one to police other people’s. The former can set an example. The latter is domineering.

.. This judgmental tendency became stronger during the administration of President Barack Obama, though not necessarily because of anything Mr. Obama did. Feeling increasingly emboldened, liberals were more convinced than ever that conservatives were their intellectual and even moral inferiors.

.. college campuses — which many take to be what a world run by liberals would look like — seemed increasingly intolerant of free inquiry.

.. It was during these years that the University of California included the phrase “America is the land of opportunity” on a list of discouraged microaggressions.

.. Champions of inclusion can watch what they say and explain what they’re doing without presuming to regulate what words come out of other people’s mouths. Campus activists can allow invited visitors to speak and then, after that event, hold a teach-in discussing what they disagree with. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that states had to allow same-sex marriage, the fight, in some quarters, turned to pizza places unwilling to cater such weddings. Maybe don’t pick that fight?

.. Liberals can act as if they’re not so certain — and maybe actually not be so certain — that bigotry motivates people who disagree with them on issues like immigration.

.. Without sacrificing their principles, liberals can come across as more respectful of others. Self-righteousness is rarely attractive, and even more rarely rewarded.

.. many liberals seem primed to write off nearly half the country as irredeemable.

.. But it is an unjustified leap to conclude that anyone who supports him in any way is racist, just as it would be a leap to say that anyone who supported Hillary Clinton was racist because she once made veiled references to “superpredators.”

Liberals are trapped in a self-reinforcing cycle. When they use their positions in American culture to lecture, judge and disdain, they push more people into an opposing coalition that liberals are increasingly prone to think of as deplorable. That only validates their own worst prejudices about the other America.