- I’m from the government, and I’m here to liberate you.
- Temple of the Living God, or just dodging hellfire?
- Low frackin’ fruit.
- Is Post-modernity Relativist?
No one was more influential in the definition of the modern state than Thomas Hobbes, who through the conceit of the “state of nature,” portrayed humans as naturally autonomous and individual, with a shared membership solely through one institution—the State. While unitary State sovereignty represented a limitation on our natural liberty in the abstract, in fact it promised a new kind of liberty—liberty from the myriad forms of constitutive identification and membership in non-state institutions, especially the Church.
William T. Cavanaugh describes in his excellent study of the rise of the modern state, Migrations of the Holy, how Hobbes’s new arrangement promised liberation, not oppression:
For Hobbes, the individual was not oppressed but liberated by Leviathan. In his view, the State is not enacted to realize a common good or a common telos, but rather to liberate the individual to pursue his or her own ends without fear of interference from other individuals. In the peculiar new space created by the state, the individual members do not depend on one another; rather, they are connected only through the sovereign—as spokes to the hub of a wheel.
The rise of the state hinged on the promise of liberation of the individual from the constitutive constraints (as well as rights and liberties) of non-state organizations and institutions. The state acted as liberator of an oppressed humanity; its power, concentration, and extent increased as a necessary counterweight for the control of non-state institutions.
Deneen is one of the most perceptive guys around, describing himself, if memory serves, as a political philosopher rather than a political scientist. A founding member of Front Porch Republic, he is not a fan of Leviathan (Front Porch Republic = Anti-Leviathan almost by definition), but of those smaller “constitutive” relationships Leviathan seeks to dissolve.
Austrian legal theorist Eugene Ehrlich perceptively observed, “After the associations into which individuals have been placed as members of society have been dissolved and destroyed, the only connecting links that remain between the individual and society are ownership, contract, and the State.”
This ambition has informed the Obama’s candidacy from its first days to its recently concluded convention. The early campaign advertisement, “Life of Julia,” depicted its subject as a thoroughgoing dependent upon the assistance of the federal government who is otherwise bereft of human company (except, briefly, for a child named Zachary who ceases to be a presence in her life shortly after he enters public schools).
This picture of a radically individuated human being gave rise to the observation during the Democratic National Convention that “government is the only thing we all belong to” [sic]. In spite of the communitarian language struck at the Convention, the actual underlying theme is that the State is needed to ensure our individuated liberty—and thus, the particular emphasis upon sexual liberation for women (and, presumably, men as well). In an admirable display of philosophical consistency and logic, the Obama administration thus implicitly and effectively endorsed the Hobbesian liberal ontology that there ought exist only individuals and the state—all other competitors are to be regarded as oppressors, and require an expansive and empowered government for individual liberation.
This is just the way in which the HHS mandate has been justified. At a recent conference in which I participated at the Georgetown Law Center, a number of speakers and participants described the HHS mandate as the necessary requirement that will liberate women from the “coercion” of the Church that seeks to restrict their access to free contraception—including abortifacients—and sterilization ….
This narrative seems plausible to many, because we have been deeply shaped and trained to associate the word “liberty” with that the freedom of individuals “to pursue their own ends”—requiring, among other things, the liberation of recreational sex from any consequences—and not the rights, privileges, immunities and liberties of groups, societies, associations, even a corpus mysticum like the Church. In such a view we find Leviathan run rampant.
(Emphasis added) I highly recommend the article, but based on reactions when I mocked Obama’s “Life of Julia” (I think it was Facebook rather than blog), that last paragraph is right: Leviathan’s narrative, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to liberate you,” is pandemic.
What’s the most basic reality from which government wants to liberate people? Families. Where’s Julia’s family in Obama’s narrative?
Where’s Zachary? I’ll bet government schools taught him that Julia was an oppressor, so he’d not be around much, apart from his current distressing domicile (see below).
Julia’s grandchildren? Well, I hate to talk about it. Zach knocked up a classmate when he was a High School Sophomore, but the government had liberated her from her parents, too, and so, since the loving couple, free of parental oppression, “had no choice,” they “chose” to get an abortion at the government-subsidized abortuary, which doesn’t require the consent of oppressive parents who’d “kill me if they found out.”
Zach’s in prison now, lacking fathering from the anonymous guy who sired him and running a bit wild as a result, so he isn’t siring any children of his own just now.
Note that this does not mean that Obama consciously ”has something up his sleeve” that he’ll pull out once we’ve been liberated from all mediating structures (maybe the most important topic on which Wikipedia has no article) and left naked before the State. I believe the State trends totalitarian (e.g., prisons for the many young men who grew up, like Zach) as mediating structures disappear, but that doesn’t mean it’s a deliberate strategy.
About five years ago, an Evangelical friend gently dismissed my Orthodox faith, saying he just wanted to get into heaven and would leave “jewels in the crown” for others. I thought of that as I read the print version of an Orthodox homily from last Sunday:
The purpose of seeking after righteousness is to prepare us as the temple of the living God …
I think we may often pass over these more “mystical” or “spiritual” words from Scripture because they probably make little sense to us — being a “temple of the living God” sounds like nice poetry, but it doesn’t actually mean anything, does it? Isn’t just getting to Heaven when you die the real purpose of Christian life?
A close examination of the Scriptures and the words of the saints of the Church will reveal that one’s eternal destiny cannot be separated out from teachings such as this. … Heaven is a place for human hearts that have become temples of the living God, because Heaven is nothing less than the unmitigated, unveiled, direct experience of Christ in glory, with His Father and the Holy Spirit.
Our hearts have to be prepared and properly adorned as temples of God in order for us to experience the next life as anything pleasant ….
(Fr. Andrew Steven Damick, Homily for September 30) As opposition to Leviathan is core to my political philosophy, so this sort of teaching, early in my pilgrimage to Orthodoxy, became core to my religious life. It also, by the way, shed fresh light on C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. As a commenter to the blog version of the homily said:
I became Orthodox because it was the only expression of Christian faith that made any sense to me. The only way I know to explain that to anyone else is to point them to something I’ve read and hope it makes sense to them. This piece gets to the core of “why be Orthodox?”, and does it without a single word of theological or philosophical Greek ….
This seems likely to end badly:
- Allow corporations to inject god-knows-what secret mixtures into the ground to liberate natural gas.
- Omigosh! There’s so much! What will we do with it all? (Price goes down insanely.)
- Politicians promise eternally abundant clean natural gas and kill the dirty coal industry, concentrated in flyover country where people who don’t matter live.
- Omigosh! There’s not so much gas any more! “Seems we got the low fracking fruit.) What will we do? (Prices go up.)
- Omigosh! People are sick from the now-known, formerly secret mixtures injected into the ground, and, mirabile dictu, migrating into groundwater. Whoever would have guessed that such a thing could happen?
This isn’t fantasy. Government policy in connivance with corporations have killed industries in the past. Not to mention people.
Some of the most ardent presuppositions of modernity have proven themselves to be delusions. The realization of this fact has given rise to what is termed the “post-modern.” There are many elements of philosophy, art, architecture, literature, theology, etc., that are described as “post-modern.” All of them have in common a critique of the assumptions of modernity. Progress has been unmasked and shown to be less than an unmitigated blessing. Knowledge itself has been relativized. Things that we once thought we knew, are today seen to be deeply dependent on bias and perspective. Values such as good and beautiful have become very difficult to assert in any absolute sense. This is not necessarily the great onslaught of relativism that many conservatives allege. It is, to a large extent, simply the questioning of the absurd assumptions of the past 500 years.
(Fr. Stephen Freeman) A lot of conservative breast-beating, whether about secular humanism or relativism or whatever (including much that I have no doubt said or written over the years) misses the mark. It may be close, and even close enough to be useful, but still “off the mark.”
Fr. Stephen’s idea that the “onslaught of relativism” may be, in many cases, questioning modernist dogmas, is intriguing. I look forward to the series the quoted post introduces.
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