Why Not to Despair When the Barbarians Are at the Gate

Relief of Roman fighting a barbarian, Musée du Louvre

Relief of Roman fighting a barbarian, Musée du Louvre

Things got a little intense at pilates the other day.

My classmates were lamenting the state of the world. Global terrorism. Coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. Donald Trump.

I piped up during my plank routine. Perhaps it’s all a positive, a character test of some type that should be heeded and understood, rather than dismissed unthinkingly in the grip of crisis or despair.

Julie on the neighboring “reformer” machine was quick to oblige: “What, don’t you have children—don’t you care about the future?!”

Western civilization has long grappled with the relationship between the intrigue and incessant conflict of worldly politics and what is truly important, the spiritual and absolute. In The Cave and the Light (2013), Arthur Herman recounts how Augustine of Hippo, in 410, told his panicked brethren they should welcome the tumult arising from the fall of imperial Rome. Any society built around earthly ends must and should pass away in favor of one that serves a higher realm, what lies beyond reason and the senses. “Instead of uniting men by power or love of glory,” writes the historian, a Heavenly City would “unite them by the bonds of love, derived from the love of God.”

Christian cosmology accords the universe a beginning, middle, and end, with man playing a vital part in bringing about closure, a reconstituting of prior perfection. This is not a straightforward role, however, as it raises disturbing questions about the Creator’s state of mind.

Why go to the trouble to create or evolve—it doesn’t matter which—social creatures with reason and free will, if such unique attributes are ultimately useless? The competitive mind, though of great practical value, can’t capture Augustine’s idealism in a theory or moral code applicable to all. Any triumph must be a triumph of the nonpartisan heart, unforced and free of expectation. So relinquish all knowledge, fear, and everyday desire, and trust in the uncanny ways of an ineffable God.

As we know, this was—and continues to be—too much to ask of Western Christianity. An enchanted existence, wherein the source of truth and meaning is transcendent and thus known inwardly by the individual, is incompatible with organized progress. Unlike its savior, the priestly class went with ideology and power.

But here’s the thing: The Enlightenment didn’t undercut Christian theocracy by exposing its conditional, and therefore faux, spirituality. That was left to Martin Luther. Church authority was eclipsed by reassigning collective purpose to an emerging democratic state, while at the same time employing reason and science to discredit metaphysical belief in a common destination—that is, heaven—and the special status of human beings. Man became an end in himself, an accidental animal on an aimless journey to oblivion.

As we are discovering, however, a hard-core secular mentality is not as liberating or as humanistic as advertised. Absent something beyond the universe to validate our choices as integral to a larger scheme, albeit unknowable, life on Earth is meaningless. Who cares if we are good or bad, or if the planet is destroyed by nuclear warfare or wanton consumerism? If we’re not a means to an end game, the correct ethos is to resign oneself to selfishness and indifference, like some character out of Seinfeld.

This bitter logic, of course, is avidly resisted.

Julie from my pilates class got tetchy because godless modern society still yearns for a spiritual homecoming, a finality made possible by human exceptionalism. Although furiously denied if challenged, the hedging is plainly evident in the clamor for science and technology to protect and extend our lives, no matter how undignified the results. It animates the supernatural heroes and villains of popular entertainment. And it’s obvious in moralistic social media and a related  hankering for the state to regulate human behavior.

Alas, progressive secular culture lacks the wherewithal to acknowledge this reality and regain any kind of perspective.

Captivated by its extensive goal-seeking achievements, liberal catechism deems it ignorant to believe in what cannot be seen, touched, or subjected to rational enquiry. Transcend to where?  Have faith in what, exactly? Attempts to quell the spiritual decline only exacerbate our problems, since the effort is hopelessly utilitarian, faithful to the false political hope of bureaucratic power and ongoing welfare.

The Cave and the Light chronicles the historical tension between American democracy and personal liberty, what in the early days was taken to be a mystic commitment to God. It notes Tocqueville’s observation that the people, mistrustful of systems, nonetheless struck a crucial balance “between the push for material progress and enlightenment and their evangelical Protestant roots,” a view later legitimated by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

What isn’t adequately addressed, in Herman’s excellent book and elsewhere in elite circles today, is the sustainability of this balancing act in light of America’s eschatological pedigree, its driving ambition to restore pre-cosmic unity. Prosperity, intelligence, and sophisticated institutions, necessary but never sufficient, can’t satisfy our deepest needs. At some point, in some fashion, the Heavenly City must and will reassert its standing, putting pressure on the ruling class to come clean and admit the conflict between worldly and otherworldly is an elaborate ruse.

The common goal is an all-encompassing radical experience, not a rational proposition to be stacked up against this or that partisan concern. A harmonious whole is a consequence of letting go and placing the superior habits of the heart first. And pretend as we might, neither the state nor the church can relieve the individual of this responsibility and the private judgment it requires.

In the eyes of some, an establishment devoid of lived examples of how to overcome the world should be razed, regardless of how impressive the platform may be. Hence Donald Trump, a modern day Visigoth summoned to the gates of the Republic by those who retain an intuitive sense that what’s at stake has an all-or-nothing quality that can’t be justified.

And his political demise will change nothing.

That the moment of truth is upon America and the West is both inescapable and a good thing. Seriously, aren’t we tired of kicking the can down the road? Wouldn’t you prefer to take a shot at bringing home the celestial bacon?

The election of Barack Obama seemed to promise the arrival of a secularized Saint Augustine, a detached leader who cares so much about his children and the future he renounces the hypocritical hedge-betting of ideology and power. Having first, perhaps, lightened the mood with some much-needed irony and Founding Father deism.

The Creator is a comedian, and we’ve all become too pious, cynical, or despairing to laugh at our circumstances. In the end, shared success is contingent on the individual trusting the timeless human spirit.

“I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know,” declared Thomas Jefferson to the evangelist Ezra Stiles in a letter from 1819. Jesus has told us only that God is “good and perfect, but has not defined him. I am therefore of his theology, believing that we have neither words nor ideas adequate to that definition. And if we could all, after his example, leave the subject as undefinable, we should all be of one sect, doers of good and eschewers of evil.”

Human life is ridiculous. Yet this is only true if and when, contrary to our true purpose, reason is preferred to the heart. As Albert Camus insisted, love can save us from absurdity. The test, then, is to bring heaven to Earth by connecting with the here and now, with the universality of what is.

By honoring each other as spontaneous ends, practicing love and friendship for its own sake, we can separately and together be a means to something greater, the highest good that forever exceeds what the mind can grasp.

And in further good news, Barack Obama still has an opportunity as emperor to share the joke and, in doing so, redeem his original promise: the transcendent hope of Yes We Can.

Mark Christensen is a political and social commentator in Australia, with an abiding interest in American politics.

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One thought on “Why Not to Despair When the Barbarians Are at the Gate

  1. Emmet Grünzweig

    How wonderful if by reflection we could escape the burden of here and the now, and the inescapability of contingency–some times actually are better than other times, no matter how our idealizing “hearts” may wish it wren’t so–but this commentary is neither politically nor theologically coherent. I have learned, however, that for Mr. Christensen, at least, everything is going to ok, and I suppose that’s something.

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