This post originally was posted on 10/3/07 by Caleb during the Federal Vision debate. As always, Caleb is erudite and drives home his point with devastating insight.
Here is the link to the original (oddly formatted because of the DRC shift…shift Ireally meant shift… never any excrement around here). The text is reproduced below but you need to check out the original to appreciate the fuller discussion including a robust comments section.
Here is the text:
Re-Paganizing the Church
James brought up pagans in the comments. Darryl mentioned that Lewis thought pagans were more ready to accept Christianity than moderns. Recently, Leithart had a short piece in First Things making basically the same point and arguing for a re-paganization of the west. This is an important discussion to have, I think, and it strikes me that, though not immediately obvious, this stuff is closely related to the phenomena of the FV (though perhaps not directly related to the specifics of FV).
Leithart argues: Part of the trick is cultivating a healthy skepticism toward secularization theories. For Max Weber and armies of Weberian sociologists, modernity disenchanted the world, locking us all in the iron cage of rationalized bureaucracy. Even modern religion and music, Weber argued, submit to the tyranny of systematization and disperse the gods. Latour will have none of this. The world has not and cannot be disenchanted: How could we be capable of disenchanting the world, he asks, when every day our laboratories and our factories populate the world with hundreds of hybrids stranger than those of the day before? . . . How could we be chilled by the cold breath of the sciences, when the sciences are hot and fragile, human and controversial, full of thinking reeds and of subjects who are themselves inhabited by things? Kant moralized and modernized sin, atonement, justification, and the Church to bring Christianity to Enlightened maturity. Perhaps we must reverse the process and primitivize the Enlightenment, so that the gospel can again speak directly to our not-so-modern society. Perhaps we must re-paganize the West as a prerequisite to its re-evangelizing it.
This is a sophisticated argument and I think can teach us something about the roots of FV. For example, in their deep readings in Latour and Girard. I have noticed this in Wilson as well. Readers of this blog will know that I do not give such short shrift to Weber as Leithart does here, and I am skeptical of the Girardians. But the Girardian/Latourian argument has merit as well. It is true that we have not and cannot escape completely from the pagan world full of gods. However, Weber was right that the gods have been dispersed.
To put it another way, our late-modern existence is characterized just as much as any age by magical thinking. Just look at the rhetoric surrounding Iraq. Or your local lottery ticket sales. The problem is in who people craving some magic turn to as witchdoctors. Armies of materialists: therapists, experts, politicians, scientists, etc.
But Leithart’s conclusion is wrong. What is needed is not a re-paganizing of the west (anyone who wants to see what that looks like need only travel a while in west Africa), but a repaganizing of the church. Let me explain.
There is a fascinating body of literature and study on tightly knit groups of people with closely held identities who are driven from their home land. For example, the famine Irish and famine Russians who emigrated to the North American plains in the 19th Century. For these two groups of famine immigrants to the Midwest, the stigma of being emigrants was large, and largely felt as a motif of self- and communal-identity. These folks talk and write about their lives, both formally and informally in letters and such, as if they are haunted by the old country. They are totally displaced and suffer a kind of disorientation that seems almost unique among human experience. One writer said that emigrants (his family) never again feel at home any place in the world. Once gone, they can never arrive, and they can never go back. Their writings are infused with a kind of limbo-esque existence in the borders or twilight, which of course contributes to this spiritual sense of haunting. This same writer says that for those attempting a return, even for a visit, a break had occurred that could not be healed. And in the new land, few emigrants ever made a home that they knew for certain would be theirs. Once you leave home, your native land, no matter how tenuous your hold has been, you can never feel at home anywhere you live.
I think this is a powerful description of the church, raised up in the psycho-spiritual home of blood and sacrifice, etc., and then put on the trail of emigration towards the new heavens and new earth. This is the conundrum between conversion and tradition I spoke of earlier.
Modern Christians tend to feel this phenomena of being socio-spiritual emigrants, or famine Christians acutely. Not only have they been exiled from paganism, but they have also been exiled from what I will call the church’s deal with paganism which began to crumble with the enlightenment and onset of modernity.
There was a recent letter exchange between Matthew Lickona and Jody Bottum in First Things. Bottum observes in Lickona this phenomena which I think of as the famine Christian: hunger for culture, the sense of loss, the damaged world of those in rebellion against rebellion, the strangeness created when a tradition is chosen rather than inherited; combined with intellectual seriousness and a joy in the ancient Catholic faith. The only thing Bottum left out is this inchoate foreboding of being haunted. I think the New England transcendetalists and Hudson school guys were onto some of this same phenomena-think Washington Irving.
Anglo-catholics like Lewis, Tolkein, Chesterton, Eliot, etc., all understood the Church as a crypt in which the essential and primary blood and soil paganism of Europe was embalmed and allowed to stare up at us out of the waters. Think Tolkien’s ghostly undead kings of the past coming back to help the heroes/true church at its time of need. I don’t know exactly what Tolkien meant by that, but they are a cursed and unfriendly lot. This isn’t really redemption but a lingering paganism that speaks to this not entirely appropriate collaboration and amalgamation between Christianity and paganism in the west, which Protestantism/enlightenment/modernity has tried to efface and now has completely forgotten. This forgetting has caused all kinds of problems which was the most basic point of Tolkein’s books. The foremost problem is that Christianity as a depaganized political religion is Liberalism, radicalized and out of whack with reality in which one must at times do evil and even commit mortal sins for temporal goods that are the charge of those with political power. And then seek absolution in the magical appeasement of the gods. The medieval church allows, or found a way to admit and cope with this. It is a deal with paganism. Take it away and you get a devolution from Protestantism into liberalism. You get the new American personal faith Christianity (evangelicalism) with the magical thinking of overbought homes on ARMS and credit cards and daycare and building democracy in Iraq and all the other delusional magical thinking of late-modernity in the capitalist-state. And you get a whole new class of materialist therapeutic witchdoctors rising up to give the newest incantations: your best life now! your purpose driven life! or whatever.
So now we see American Christianity emerging more and more into universalism. It is in the water. All roads lead to ruin as Eliot knew. And for those who see this, the desire for tradition or whatever you call that which is largely lost and haunting us is a partly sick desire to unearth the dead.
We are at a dangerous crossroads. Messing with the dead is dangerous stuff. But it must be done. But like Tolkein understood, it can only be done by the true King, by the church, and even this is not without debilitating and compromises. This is connected to what I have been arguing about being able, at least occasionally, to admit that the narratives of tradition and church history are to an extent myths that legitimize what I would call the “mojo” … or the magic … the authority of the church. The simple yet profound truth that at the very bottom, we have very little to go on other than “because the church says so.” So this is in part what I mean by repaganizing … that our churchmen need a hint of witchdoctor in them, or if you prefer, a touch of Gandalf or Merlin. They have “powers” as my kids would say. This is completely flattened out in a rationalistic modernizing deracinated disenchanted liberalizing protestant culture. And the inchoate need for magic and appeasement of the gods gets shifted in very unhealthy materialist directions which can be exploited by those who understand the psychology. Just read some of the high-end literature on advertising today.
To what extent is all of this relevant to FV? I’m not entirely sure, and I apologize for the rambling post, but my gut tells me that this stuff is very relevant.