Religion & Liberty Online

The twilight of Christianity, the loss of authority, and our fragmented selves

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The pervasive crisis of meaning contemporary Americans experience is directly related to a loss of moral agency and legitimate authority. That crisis manifests itself in ideological fervor, grasps at power and wealth, and immersion in mob activities that occasion in violence. Is there any hope for moral cohesion short of a Third Great Awakening?

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Political theorists have engaged in much debate concerning the “quarrel between the ancients and the moderns,” such quarrel evidence of the opposing claims of the two worlds. Leo Strauss, the best known articulator of an absolute rupture, counterposed classical Greece to modern liberalism and its culmination in Nietzsche. His argument conveniently, and controversially, bypassed the whole of medieval Christianity, or what we might call Christendom (as a tightly knit correspondence between beliefs, practices, and institutions).

Recent events and reflections draw our attention back to some of the fundamental issues in this distinction. Are we still in the modern world, have we fully entered the postmodern world, or are we somewhere else? And, in any case, what would it mean to be any of those things or, worse still, trapped between such things? To what degree are we experiencing a civilizational toppling that results from the collapse of Christendom?

Such toppling was predicted by Nietzsche in his 1882 work The Gay Science. While observing that the central event of the age—the death of God—had already occurred while its effects were still too distant to be comprehended, Nietzsche wondered “how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined.” Eventually, the West would be consumed by a “long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm” that would require of us “new festivals of atonement” and new “sacred games” to reconcile us to our dark fate.

Nietzsche’s time was not yet, but for those of us living in the present age, his works read as a gloomy prophecy rather than an endorsement of “a new and scarcely describable kind of light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn” that attended those who heralded the end of Christendom. The price modern man has paid for his liberation has been the central question of the past 150 years, and nowhere have the resonances of that question resounded more clearly than in nations whose Christian impulses have not been completely effaced. Political theory has achieved its most acute expression in those places where the consequences of modernity are keenly seen in relief against a world now lost.

A good example of such insight comes from Hungary in the form of Chantal Delsol’s essay “The End of Christianity.” Delsol notes that the death throes of Christian culture have lasted now for nearly two centuries, and those pangs in turn have unleashed an energy that demonstrates the depth of the crisis the modern world faces. That crisis derives from the fact that modernity’s inner dynamism resulted only from the capital it could borrow from Christendom, and once Christianity’s capital was spent the West became bankrupt and exhausted. As Nietzsche predicted, one consequence would be a proliferation of new gods and religions to take the place of the old God, but none of them would be able on their own to address the central problem of the world we now live in: the collapse of authority.

That collapse is testified to by what Nietzsche called the transvaluation of all values and Delsol identifies as our “moral hierarchies hav[ing] literally been reversed.” “To examine,” she continues,” what is permissible, laudable, and forbidden at a given time is to glimpse into the mindset of an era,” and one would have to be willfully blind not to be somewhat alarmed at the specter haunting the visible landscape of our time. In one particularly acute observation concerning this inverted age, Delsol contemplates that “the fate of a current condemned by history is to become more and more extremist, to lose its most competent defenders, and finally, by a sort of disastrous process, to end up resembling its adversaries.” A fine description of our contemporary situation, that.

I’m reminded here of an oft-neglected section of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America wherein he observes that democratic peoples have a natural tendency toward pantheism, which seems a most unusual observation in context. Granted, he was observing the first wave of transcendentalism, but more importantly he understood that the logic of egalitarianism would lead to the destruction of all hierarchies, even the most consequential one of the hierarchy of Being itself and its distinction of Creator and creation. Modern egalitarians may be tolerant, but they’ll never tolerate hierarchy, and that is why Christendom with the Catholic Church as its organizing agent will never be tolerable to them. Delsol rightly notes the antithesis between “prevailing cultural forces” and the church, but the moral differences she identifies are only part of that story. The resistance to hierarchy forms a large part of the tension between the church and the modern world in no small part because it issues in contrasting views of authority. 

Robert Nisbet rightly identified the decline of authority as the central feature of our “twilight” age. Things lose their shape and form in the twilight, and we perceive the world only dimly. We face with increasing evidence the decline and decay of our institutions with nothing replacing them. Detached from these institutions we become rootless and anchorless, and our actions have no meaning or worth other than what we or others can ascribe to them. “Individualism,” Nisbet continued, “reveals itself less as achievement and enterprise than as egoism or mere performance. Retreat from the major to the minor, from the noble to the trivial, the communal to the personal, and from the objective to the subjective is commonplace.”

Critics of modern liberalism have observed that the principle of autonomy always renders authority precarious. In contrast, structures of political authority mediate responsible moral action, and those structures, in turn, require justifications superior to assertions of power. Properly constituted authority makes both the grounds and ends of action intelligible, and thus legitimate. When authority devolves to power and becomes self-seeking or self-justifying, it loses its ability to command moral action because moral actors are gradually robbed of their agency. That loss of legitimacy has infected the social institutions within which moral agency receives its purpose and meaning. The pervasive crisis of meaning contemporary Americans experience is directly related to this loss of a sense of agency. That crisis manifests itself in various modes of narcoticization, in ideological fervor, in grasps at power and wealth, and most disastrously in immersion in mob activities that occasion in violence.

Delsol and others have drawn our attention to how the modern experiment in liberation has resulted in built-in identity crises as well as an inability to ground our institutional and moral life in anything other than subjective preferences. Authority as an expression of public will whose purpose is to protect private ends necessarily falls short of its goal. Proper authority only operates where the execution of legitimate moral authority instantiated in law, the mechanisms of power, and the perpetuation of tradition work together to form a coherent world. A fragmented world can only lead to fragmented selves. The effects of our deep crisis are by now played out even if, as Nietzsche said, the thunder has not caught up to the lightning.

What Christendom joined together has been rent asunder. The effort to render things whole once again remains the most significant challenge of our age. The First and Second Great Awakenings were instrumental in shaping public order, but they happened within the context of a largely coherent tradition. Given the disruptions to the legitimacy of our constitutional order as well as the fragmentation of moral claims, it remains very much a question whether authority can be restored without some sort of authentic religious awakening. Such an awakening cannot be indifferent to constitutional forms and the best elements of our political traditions lest they repeat the errors that accompanied Christendom’s rejection and, indeed, Christendom itself. The difficult task of preserving liberty in the face of its tendency to erode authority still remains for us an ongoing one.

Jeffrey Polet

Jeffrey Polet is professor emeritus of political science at Hope College and director of the Ford Leadership Forum at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.