Rod Dreher

Francis Fukuyama gives a favorable review to Julian Young’s new “philosophical biography” of Friedrich Nietzsche in this weekend’s NYT Book Review. This section of the review jumped out at me:

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche. Postmodernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, the “free spirit” scorning bourgeois morality, even New Age festivals like Burning Man can all ultimately be traced to him. There is a line running from “Beyond Good and Evil” to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s assertion (in Planned Parenthood v. Casey) that liberty is “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.”
Young appropriately underlines the notion that postmodernism, with its embrace of diversity in values, is no different from the 19th-century modernism that Nie­tzsche hated. He would not have cele­brated alternative lifestyles, non-­Western cultures or the right of every fourth grader to be his or her own value-creator. Acknowledgment of the death of God is a bomb that blows up many things, not just oppressive traditionalism, but also values like compassion and the equality of human dignity on which support for a tolerant liberal political order is based. This then is the Nie­tzschean dead end from which Western philosophy has still not emerged.

Emphasis mine. This is precisely what I believe has not been fully appreciated by the New Atheists and other optimists about the human condition. As the philosophical skeptic John Gray, among others, has repeatedly said, the liberal, humanistic values so prized by the West derive from and depend on Christianity. It is clear that you can have a good society without Christianity, e.g., Scandinavia. The question is, can you sustain a good society without Christianity? I am thinking this morning about Glenn Tinder’s 1989 Atlantic essay about the political meaning of Christianity. It begins like this:

WE are so used to thinking of spirituality as withdrawal from the world and human affairs that it is hard to think of it as political. Spirituality is personal and private, we assume, while politics is public. But such a dichotomy drastically diminishes spirituality construing it as a relationship to God without implications for one’s relationship to the surrounding world. The God of Christian faith (I shall focus on Christianity although the God of the New Testament is also the God of the Old Testament) created the world and is deeply engaged in the affairs of the world. The notion that we can be related to God and not to the world–that we can practice a spirituality that is not political–is in conflict with the Christian understanding of God.
And if spirituality is properly political, the converse also is true, however distant it may be from prevailing assumptions: politics is properly spiritual. The spirituality of politics was affirmed by Plato at the very beginnings of Western political philosophy and was a commonplace of medieval political thought. Only in modern times has it come to be taken for granted that politics is entirely secular. The inevitable result is the demoralization of politics. Politics loses its moral structure and purpose, and turns into an affair of group interest and personal ambition. Government comes to the aid of only the well organized and influential, and it is limited only where it is checked by countervailing forces. Politics ceases to be understood as a pre-eminently human activity and is left to those who find it profitable, pleasurable, or in some other way useful to themselves. Political action thus comes to be carried out purely for the sake of power and privilege.
It will be my purpose in this essay to try to connect the severed realms of the spiritual and the political. In view of the fervent secularism of many Americans today, some will assume this to be the opening salvo of a fundamentalist attack on “pluralism.” Ironically, as I will argue, many of the undoubted virtues of pluralism–respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings, to cite just two–have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity. The question that secularists have to answer is whether these values can survive without these particular roots. In short, can we be good without God? Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons–values we ordinarily regard as secular–without giving them transcendental backing? Today these values are honored more in the breach than in the observance; Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.

Take, for example, the concept of the exalted individual. Tinder argues that while this idea didn’t exactly originate with Christianity, it was Christianity that gave it world-changing political force. Excerpt below the jump:

[In Christianity,] the Lord of all time and existence has taken a personal interest in every human being, an interest that is compassionate and unwearying. The Christian universe is peopled exclusively with royalty. What does this mean for society?
To speak cautiously, the concept of the exalted individual implies that governments–indeed, all persons who wield power–must treat individuals with care. This can mean various things–for example, that individuals are to be fed and sheltered when they are destitute, listened to when they speak, or merely left alone so long as they do not break the law and fairly tried if they do. But however variously care may be defined, it always means that human beings are not to be treated like the things we use and discard or just leave lying about. They deserve attention. This spare standard has of course been frequently and grossly violated by people who call themselves Christians. It has not been without force, however. Even in our own secularized times people who are useless or burdensome, hopelessly ill or guilty of terrible crimes, are sometimes treated with extraordinary consideration and patience.
The modest standard of care implies other, more demanding standards. Equality is one of these; no one is to be casually sacrificed. No natural, social, or even moral differences justify exceptions to this rule. Of course destinies make people not equal but, rather, incomparable; equality is a measurement and dignity is immeasurable. But according to Christian claims, every person has been immeasurably dignified. Faith discerns no grounds for making distinctions, and the distinctions made by custom and ambition are precarious before God. “Many that are first will be last, and the last first.” Not only love but humility as well–the humility of not anticipating the judgments of God–impels us toward the standard of equality.
No one, then, belongs at the bottom, enslaved, irremediably poor, consigned to silence; this is equality. This points to another standard: that no one should be left outside, an alien and a barbarian. Agape implies universality. Greeks and Hebrews in ancient times were often candidly contemptuous of most of the human race. Even Jesus, although not contemptuous of Gentiles, conceived of his mission as primarily to Israel. However, Jesus no doubt saw the saving of Israel as the saving of all humankind, and his implicit universalism became explicit, and decisive for the history of the world, in the writings and missionary activity of Paul. Christian universalism (as well as Christian egalitarianism) was powerfully expressed by Paul when he wrote that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Christian universalism was reinforced by the universalism of the later Stoics, who created the ideal of an all-embracing city of reason– cosmopolis. Medieval Christians couched their universalist outlook in Hellenic terms. Thus two streams of thought, from Israel and Greece, flowed together. As a result the world today, although divided among nations often ferociously self-righteous and jealous, is haunted by the vision of a global community. War and national rivalry seem unavoidable, but they burden the human conscience. Searing poverty prevails in much of the world, as it always has, but no longer is it unthinkingly accepted in either the rich nations or the poor. There is a shadowy but widespread awareness, which Christianity has had much to do with creating, that one person cannot be indifferent to the destiny of another person anywhere on earth. It is hardly too much to say that the idea of the exalted individual is the spiritual center of Western politics. Although this idea is often forgotten and betrayed, were it erased from our minds our politics would probably become altogether what it is at present only in part–an affair of expediency and self-interest.
The exalted individual is not an exclusively Christian principle. There are two ways in which, without making any religious assumptions, we may sense the infinite worth of an individual. One way is love. Through personal love, or through the sympathy by which personal love is extended (although at the same time weakened), we sense the measureless worth of a few, and are able to surmise that what we sense in a few may be present in all. In short, to love some (it is, as Dostoevsky suggested, humanly impossible to love everyone) may give rise to the idea that all are worthy of love. Further, the idea of the exalted individual may become a secular value through reason, as it did for the Stoics. Reason tells me that each person is one and not more than one. Hence my claims upon others are rightfully matched by their claims upon me. Simple fairness, which even a child can understand, is implicitly egalitarian and universal; and it is reasonable.
Can love and reason, though, undergird our politics if faith suffers a further decline? That is doubtful. Love and reason are suggestive, but they lack definite political implications. Greeks of the Periclean Age, living at the summit of the most brilliant period of Western civilization, showed little consciousness of the notion that every individual bears an indefeasible and incomparable dignity. Today why should those who assume that God is dead entertain such a notion? This question is particularly compelling in view of a human characteristic very unlike exaltation.

Read the whole thing. It’s complex and illuminating. Interesting to contemplate that the concept of the exalted individual played itself out in Western history in the atomized individualism that has done so much to undermine and even doom Christianity. But what’s coming next? Nietzsche was pleased with the demise of Christianity, but he did not foresee a humanistic world of peace, tolerance and goodwill.

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