Christianity: Metaphysical boon or bane?

Some commenters at Alternative Right have seconded the complaint of the European New Right that Christianity is responsible for our current metaphysical problems. The reason, they say, is that Christianity separates soul and body, universal and particular, Christ and Caesar. The result in each case is that the latter gets debunked in favor of the former, and we end up with a global undifferentiated scheme of nothingness. For that reason we ought to go back to paganism, or the pre-Socratics, or do what non-Western societies do, or whatever.

My response (consolidated and edited) was pretty much as follows. It’s a bit choppy and unresearched, and I’m sure there are people who could improve it, so do comment!

It seems to me that Christianity is not the cause of the destructive radicalism of Western thought. I can’t see a religion of sacraments and the Word made flesh as one that exacerbates polarities and makes them unbridgeable. Instead, it seems to me that Christianity is the answer to a radicalism that has been present since the Greeks.

Some societies are no doubt less differentiated than the West. China for example was traditionally able to consider itself the center of the world and its social order a direct manifestation of cosmic order in a more simple-minded fashion than a Western country could. China itself is still the “Middle Kingdom,” and until 1912 it was ruled by the Son of Heaven.

I don’t think any of that is true any more; hence the recent appeal of Western ideologies and also of Christianity in China. However that may be, time and place alter cases. Once differentiations have been made you can’t return to the egg. Neither the Greek polis nor the Roman patria potestas are available to us. Ditto for the Germanic warrior band.

The radicalism of Western thought is I think native to a part of the world in which multiple civilizations enduringly confront each other. It wasn’t Christians who invented the cosmopolitan ideal or spirit as separate and opposed to flesh. The Greeks were there first.

Even Chinese thought was radical during their Warring States period, and there they had fundamental similarity of civilization to moderate things. It seems obvious that thought is going to become yet more radical in the Mediterranean basin, with Greece, Israel, Egypt, Babylon and who not else jostling each other and Persia a continuing presence on the horizon. The problem of course becomes worse in modern times, with information technology making all times and places present to us.

The issue then is how to bring polarities and separate aspects of life into relation once primitive lack of differentiation has been lost so they can be understood as part of a higher unity and not as pure oppositions. (In the latter case the temptation is always to get rid of one side of the polarity or the other, which is a big reason people and civilizations go bonkers.)

Not every solution for maintaining coherence and sanity will work. It seems to me Catholic Christianity does work. On the whole Christianity accepted what antiquity had achieved but got rid of stuff that wasn’t working and added other stuff that made the whole system function better. As many people have noted, there was lots and lots of continuity on basic points.

It got rid of the pagan gods, who had lost seriousness, and substituted angels, saints, and demons, who had a more comprehensible place in the scheme of things. It kept Plato’s Form of the Good and Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover but made them features of a Person who created everything and became concretely present in the world, which counteracted tendencies toward fatalism, radical opposition of world and spirit, and so on. It created the Church as an institution over against the State, which made it possible once again for understandings of the highest things to play a serious role in public life. And it did a lot to close the gap between philosopher and populace.

All those things had the effect of bringing a world which had lost coherence back into living unity. And the new higher unity wasn’t happenstance but was backed by Creation and Incarnation, the most basic doctrines of Christianity. Maybe something else could have done the job but I’m not sure what that other thing is. Nor do I know of anything else on offer that will give back to us the world we actually live in, which in our experience is not impossibly pointless, divided, and incoherent.

3 thoughts on “Christianity: Metaphysical boon or bane?”

  1. The poisonous Western ideas are transparently un-Christian
    My simple reply would be to examine the core philosophical ideas that animate Western leftism, radicalism, and general decadence, and note that they are all obviously contrary to Biblical truths:

    1) The Rousseauian view of human nature animates liberalism and leftism and all other forms of utopianism. It is contrary to the view of a flawed human nature found in the Bible. Does any scholar of Rousseau, Condorcet, et al. claim that they drew their inspiration from the Bible?

    2) The soul/body polarity is a form of ancient dualism, which predates Christianity and was opposed forcefully by Christianity, starting with direct attacks upon it in the New Testament epistles and continuing with the even more forceful attacks on the full-blown Gnostic versions of it that emerged in the second century.

    3) The general materialism and decadence of the West are an understandable side effect of affluence, but can hardly be considered to be harmonious with Biblical teachings.

    4) The problem with ideologies, as Russell Kirk used the term (the elevation of one grand principle so that all else must yield to it) is antithetical to the multiple goods espoused in the Bible. Further, the imperative to render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God, combined with the justifications of civil power to maintain law and order found in Romans and elsewhere, directly imply a balancing of civil and spiritual goods that is central to conservatism and anathema to ideologies.

    5) Fatalism is a plague on every society that espouses it. The Christian West has stood in glorious contrast to fatalistic Eastern societies for millennia. Limited forms of fatalism, such as “historical inevitability,” were invented by ideologues who were alienated from the Western Christian culture they inhabited.

    6) Nominalism, relativism, and other denials of absolute truth plague our current culture and can hardly be called the product of Christianity with its claim to absolute truth.

    7) Nihilism is an expressly atheistic outcome that infects everything from our intellectual elites to our popular culture.

    More examples could probably be given. Try to imagine a Western Civilization not beset by ideology, Rousseauism, Gnosticism and dualism, fatalism and historical inevitability, nominalism, nihilism, and materialism and decadence. It is almost impossible to imagine, but that is what a Christian civilization would look like. The complaints of the post-Christian right would look pretty paltry compared to the complaints that all of us on the right currently have about our culture and society.

  2. Most definitely boon
    Searching for the meaning of ‘the West’ as few years ago as a slightly postmodern and classical liberal student I wound up with Roman Catholicism as indeed the only coherent anwser to my question. Not that I would consider myself a Catholic now, cultural christian is a better word I think (although I have issues with Protestantism and the notion of cultural christian of course lost all meaning when Dawkins used it).

    For example: the Fall would have sounded outdated to me before but now offers a sensible explanation about evil in the world. It brings good and evil into one coherent philosophic framework. It therefore does not divide and cause metaphysical problems but it unites and offers a metaphysical solution.

    I’m not quite sure how the New European Right fits into this but if with it politicians like the Dutch Geert Wilders are meant I suffice by saying that I never heard the man about indepth matters like this and don’t think he ever will speak about them. Wilders is, like pretty much everything I could assume to be the New European Right, in the end just another liberal revival. In the end the New European Right chooses for state intervention just as easy as their supposedly left-wing opponents – for matters of public order, integration of cultural minorities and the relationship between church and state. There’s no good to be expected from that.

    • ENR
      It’s interesting you never heard of the European New Right. It had been my impression that they’d dropped out of the discussion and that confirms it.

      They are or were a mostly French intellectual movement that appeared in the late ’70s and talked a lot about paganism. They hated classical and other liberals and were big on ethnic identity. They still have something of a presence among US alternative right types.


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