On Putting First Things First
There are today two “discourses” which occupy evangelical social media, or at least the social media that I observe. One is the question of evangelical political engagement, if or how Christians should seek to effect political change in their nation(s). The other is that of theological retrieval: to what extent should ideas derived from older (much older) generations of Christians exercise authority over our doctrine of God. On the face of it, neither appears connected to the other and, of the two, the former is rather more urgent than the latter. What do the abstruse philosophical prognostications of long dead Christian theologians have to do with the battle against ‘wokism’ or the fight for the life of the unborn? In this article, I want to suggest that the two are, in fact, intertwined and that our present-day political struggles can only be successfully prosecuted if we recover the notion of divine perfection taught in the past.
I take as my departure point Joshua Mitchell’s compelling analysis of our political moment in his 2020 book, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time. Mitchell’s central thesis is that the rise of identity politics can be explained as an attempt to navigate between innocence and transgression. This need arises because the Christian belief that transgression can be dealt with through the divine scapegoat, Jesus Christ, has vacated the public square. In that absence, the ‘identity politics of innocence’ has ‘turned politics into a religious venue of sacrificial offering (xxi). A new scapegoat must be found to purge sins away and ‘the scapegoat identity politics offers up for sacrifice is the white, heterosexual man. If he is purged, its adherents imagine, the world itself, along with the remaining groups in it, will be cleansed of stain.’ (xxi)
One point Mitchell makes powerfully in the book is that the weakness of this approach, amongst many, is that this scapegoat will never be sufficient. The stain of an imperfect world is never sufficiently dealt with, perfection is never attained. Once white heterosexual men have been purged, ‘a new group of innocents must step in to take (their) place’ (121). Identity politics can never achieve the innocence its adherents yearn for, no matter how many sacrifices they offer. Mitchell concludes,
With only a little imagination, we can anticipate what the last indictment will be: the indictment of man himself…The final revelation of identity politics gives us transhumanism or human extinction; the one clears away Adam’s transgressive inheritance so that he many finally – literally – be “without blemish or spot”, and the other restores nature’s innocence by killing off the heirs of Adam altogether. (121-122)
And yet, even these solutions will not suffice. In a powerful passage, Mitchell waxes satirical,
But wait! Perhaps to wipe the stain away entirely, we need to go further. Maybe homo sapiens as a species are only the surface manifestation of a deeper blemish. The Hominidae family and the primate order may not go deep enough, either. Perhaps the class Mammalia gets us where we need to go…Perhaps the current era of mammalian dominance, which began after the Chicxulub asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-six million years ago, should come to an end… The good news, we must now acknowledge, is that radical climate change could wipe out all mammals, after which a new class within the phylum Chordata will emerge – perhaps it will be reptiles. But here, too, we should be weary: What if all members of the Chordata are also implicated? Creatures with backbones are not to be trusted…
This odd thought experiment has not been in jest. To what lengths must we go, in all honesty, before the stain of man is cleansed? That is the searing question of our times.
Mitchell locates an important question – how deep does the stain go? Is there any point in reality at which we find untainted perfection, any point where the work of purgation and purification can be laid aside and enjoyment begin?
The historic Christian tradition had a clear answer to this question. At the heart of reality was the Triune God of the Scriptures who existed in simple perfection. The classical understanding of God was that he is perfect in goodness, infinite in power, limitless in joy. God’s boundless immensity is such that wisdom, goodness, justice and truth, which in us exist as distinct categories and are often in tension with each other, are in Him the same, each identical with God’s pure act of existence. Therefore, existence and being were not value-neutral but intrinsically good. Indeed, God was understood to be being itself, ipsum esse subsistens, from which all other being proceeds as a finite effect from an infinite cause. Whatever philosophical questions this summary might prompt, it should be obvious that this understanding provided a sound foundation for the belief that, whatever the vicissitudes of time and human iniquity, in the end justice, goodness and joy would prevail. All other human concerns are relativised in the light of this fundamental metaphysical backdrop.
Modern secular society has no such advantage. If our society has metaphysical thoughts, they are vague and incoherent. There is the materialist view that the fundamental stratum of reality is at once chaotic and vacuous, a valueless nothingness that still manages to generate change and flux. Or there is the neo-Hegelian view, that transcendent values are embedded in time through the mysterious Geist, or emerge in the proverbial arc of history through the constant dialectic of being and non-being producing becoming. That these thoughts are vague and of dubious coherence is precisely the point. Yet, one thing about them is clear and certain, they posit that at the bottom of reality is limit, negation, absence, darkness. All modern views of metaphysics agree that the notion of simple perfection, whether ethical, metaphysical, intellectual or existential, is a fantasy. Either that, or it exists only as an as yet unrealised, potential achievement. In short, they agree that the stain, the presence of negation, goes all the way down.
It is no wonder that such a conception would produce the kind of political life that Mitchell describes. Like Lady Macbeth we seek to scour a stain that cannot be removed, using ever more powerful detergents, no matter how fiercely they burn, in a frantic effort to attain a purity which we have never experienced yet desperately desire. The constitutional upheaval, purity tests, cancel culture and rioting are all symptoms of a malaise that flows from our perception of the very heart of reality. We are in pursuit of a home which we no longer believe exists: the place where goodness, truth and joy harmonize and provide rest for our souls. Since such a place does not exist, we must build it. Thus, the metaphysics of nihilism provides the foundation for the politics of utopianism. Imperfection must be purged, transgressors must be eliminated, patience must be eschewed. The increasing appeal to ‘global solutions’ that will somehow protect us from threats at the most macro and micro scales imaginable, climate and viruses, is just one expression of this trend. Yet, this utopian energy has a shadow side of negation and despair. Elective abortions, declining birthrate and the fashionable opinion that limiting the size of families is the way to save the planet reflect the conviction that for many humans it is better not to be. Being is no longer an unqualified good but is worthwhile only if it can somehow be purified of its intrinsic stain.
In contrast, in the book that would become the fountainhead of Christian political thought, City of God, Augustine spends considerable time showing that existence is essentially good. His theological basis for this is the Christian doctrine of creation: God is good and therefore nothing that proceeds from him can be evil in itself. Even the demons’ intrinsic existence is good, being made evil only by the vice of their pride. What then is evil? Not a substance, an existence, but a falling short of what something was made to be, like a flaccid tire on a bike. The tire is not bad because it has some positive quality of ‘flatness’ but because it lacks the air it should have to roll along the road. Whether this account is convincing or not to us, for Augustine it provides the basis for a political order that values peace, humility and patience. Peace, because the intrinsic order of reality is good; humility, because existence, along with all other things, is to be received as a gift; and patience, because, for those who seek God, the evils of this present age will one day pass away. A political community characterized by these virtues will possess the stability and security that contemporary polities lack.
Many skills are required for the task of the reform and restoration of our decaying political order. The statesman, the artist, the sociologist and the historian all have their part to play. But perhaps it is the task of the theologian, engaged in the apparently esoteric and abstruse work of excising from our conception of God any limitation, finitude, or imperfection, that is the hinge upon which all other efforts hang. For it is the theologian who testifies to the presence of simple, infinite purity of goodness, joy, and truth at the heart of reality. The patience with the imperfections of this world–a patience which is the only antidote to utopian totalitarianism–can only be maintained by believing that an eternal realm exists that is perfect, unstained, and pure, a place at which we may one day arrive. Violence and vengeance can be stayed only by the voice that says that perfect justice exists and is waiting to be made manifest.
Joshua Mitchell considers what lengths moderns will go to cleanse the stain of humanity, but what prospect is there of doing that if all reality itself is stained? The only hope of the cleansing we need is if we believe in a God who is perfect, without blemish or creaturely limitation, for ‘All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.’ (1 John 3:3). The only hope for politics, therefore, is a renewed vision of the perfect purity of God.
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