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Tackling Genuinely Hard Problems Is the Opposite of Decadence
Reflections on Ross Douthat's Christian intellectual cul-de-sacs
It’s always fun to eavesdrop, and that applies not only to another couple arguing in a restaurant, but just as well to adherents of another religion arguing in, say, a Substack post. In that spirit, I was immediately engaged by Ross Douthat’s musings about how Christian intellectuals might escape our age’s spirit of decadence, a cultural cul-de-sac (as Douthat sees it) characterized by repetition, enervation and decay. But I also found myself, well, befuddled by his description of what a Christian intellectual is actually doing.
In particular, what struck me about the way he described the various possible “projects” by thinkers as different as Fr. James Martin and Rod Dreher, is that they seemed to be explicitly understood as strategic responses to intellectual challenges from outside the Christian framework. And Douthat, at least, discussed them as an analyst would, assessing how likely they are to “work” in the sense of leading to some kind of renaissance. But if that is what they actually are, that seems to me to be a rather significant, even fatal problem; and even if that’s not what they are, it seems to me that construing them and valorizing them in that way implicitly concedes the entire framing to the intellectual challenger. That is to say, if you frame the question as “how is Christianity to respond to feminism?” (to pick one possible example), then you’ve already externalized feminism to Christianity, and implicitly defined the future of Christianity in terms of how it either assimilates or resists this foreign body. Either way, the result is to define Christianity implicitly in terms of feminism, when what I would think you’d want is the opposite — which is to say: to frame the questions feminism raises in Christian terms, which will necessarily demand a Christian answer.
I think I can best illustrate what I mean by “the opposite” by example. I attended a lecture a couple of years ago by an Orthodox rabbi about the textual basis for dealing with transgender issues in Jewish law. It was a fascinating discussion which I won’t attempt to reproduce here because I don’t think I could do it justice. But the important thing about it was that the rabbi believed that Jewish law — traditional Jewish law, construed according to the traditional halachic process — had the necessary tools for examining the question, and what he was interested in sharing was what that process looked like. So the whole discussion was an examination of proof texts and how they might be deployed.
In this process, in other words, what was coming from “the world” were testimonies of actual transgender individuals about their experience — the phenomenology in other words — as well as data from health professionals. Those are things you can’t get from texts; you can only get them from the world. Nor can you refuse to address them, because they are phenomena inside the community of traditional Jewish believers. By contrast, the religious significance of gender is something that (within this framework) one can only approach with the aid of text. (I should stress that neither of these processes is independent of either good judgment or a fundamentally ethical character; I don’t believe there are shortcuts for either. If you don’t know how to listen, then you won’t understand personal testimony; if you don’t know how to evaluate scientific research, then you may over- or under-estimate its significance. Those virtues necessarily need to deployed in each realm — but they aren’t sufficient in either.)
I don’t know what the Christian equivalent is to such a division — but it seems to me correct on its face that there should be some such division in terms of competencies. It simply makes no sense to turn to the biblical text to find out whether the earth goes around the sun, and it similarly makes no sense to ask an astronomer when the Sabbath begins.
Of course, it’s not such a simple thing in the modern world to preserve the linguistic autonomy implied by such a division — which I think is what animates the fears of someone like Rod Dreher about how the next generation is educated. I was brought up short on this score by a conversation with a fellow congregant at my synagogue about a potential candidate to be our next rabbi. (The candidate in question has since taken another job.) The rabbinical candidate in question is well-known for having co-authored the decision that paved the way for gay and lesbian Conservative Jews to have their relationships formally recognized and be eligible for the rabbinate. The decision was a technical one: it claimed that the only prohibition derived directly from the Levitical text was against anal sex between men, while all the other prohibitions against same-sex relations were of rabbinic origin and were designed to build a fence around that biblical prohibition. That being the case, it claimed that these other, rabbinically-originated prohibitions could be overridden based non other principles related to the dignity of human relationships, the importance of loving companionship, the unreasonableness of celibacy, etc.
Now, at the time this decision was not without controversy. There were liberals who wanted a decision that simply swept away any prohibition, and conservatives who found the textual process by which the prohibitions were narrowed to be strained and unconvincing (and many of these conservatives wound up leaving the movement). Well and good: disagreement is the lifeblood of Judaism. But what bothered my friend (who, I want to stress, is older than I am) wasn’t simply that she disagreed with the candidate’s position (which she did), but that she couldn’t understand how we could even consider a candidate so out of step with our values, and so offensive to gay staff and members of the congregation. What people do in the bedroom is simply none of our business, and any rabbi who didn’t see that had no business being considered.
I was tempted to cite a proof-text in response:
The Gemara relates that Rav Kahana entered and lay beneath Rav’s bed. He heard Rav chatting and laughing with his wife, and seeing to his needs, i.e., having relations with her. Rav Kahana said to Rav: The mouth of Abba, Rav, is like one whom has never eaten a cooked dish, i.e., his behavior was lustful. Rav said to him: Kahana, you are here? Leave, as this is an undesirable mode of behavior. Rav Kahana said to him: It is Torah, and I must learn. [Berakhot 62a]
But I was flummoxed because what good would a proof text do? The idea of there being any area of human endeavor that is none of Judaism’s business is, well, pretty much antithetical to how Judaism approaches the world. Is it possible that we have to be attentive to how much time passes between eating meat and eating cheese, but that our sex lives are a matter of complete indifference? And if relations in the bedroom are a matter of indifference, then why is there a Jewish marriage ceremony? A given individual may not be particularly attentive to their behavior (I’m certainly not most of the time), but the system emphatically is. (And I’m not even going to go into here how the same people who say that what goes on in the bedroom is none of anybody’s business would absolutely object to marital rape and other violations of consent that were traditionally deemed to be nobody’s business by the penal code, and might well take a busy-bodying interest in whether someone’s sexual preferences skewed notably in regards to age, or race, or gender-conformity.)
This is what folks like Dreher worry about in a Christian context. But I still can’t shake the feeling that this is a sociological problem rather than an ideological or theological one, and therefore has sociological rather than ideological or theological answers. The way to strengthen the autonomy of a language is to use that language autonomously. It strikes me as far less important what you say with that language than that you use it enough to become fluent in it. How to ensure that people do become fluent in it is then a practical challenge that implicates all kinds of things about how you organize a community — but it doesn’t implicate the particulars of the ideology being taught. Conservative ignorance is as useless a foundation as liberal ignorance, perhaps more so.
Personally, I think worries that liberalism as such is exhausted, or that it is inherently corrosive of religious belief, are simply wrong. I found Douthat’s book bracing and very much worth arguing with, and I think there’s a lot to the case that our society has become decadent. But when Iran and China have sub-replacement fertility, and brain-dead American blockbusters are the most popular entertainment from Chile to Indonesia, it feels like a stretch to identify liberalism as any part of the cause. Technological and economic developments loom far larger in my mind, even for the purely cultural aspects of decadence. Moreover, it hasn’t escaped either Douthat’s or my notice that the 19th century heyday of liberalism was also a period of revival within Christianity, with vibrant new sects forming, evangelism expanding dramatically, and serious theological debate among both liberals and conservatives, Protestants and Catholics.
So what, then, is a genuine intellectual challenge that only an intellectual could respond to? Douthat mentions in passing what I think is really by far the most substantial one, and yet one that the people he mostly highlights seem largely to have avoided: Darwinism. Darwinism is not a challenge because it provides a materialist account of human origins, or because it contradicts the literal account of creation in the Bible, or anything like that; those kinds of challenges have been around since ancient times. Nor do I think it is a challenge to religion in general; Hindu and Buddhist approaches to life should be largely unfazed, I think, by the Darwinian challenge, and both Judaism and Islam should have an easier time adapting than Christianity can (they had a harder time, I think, adapting to liberalism).
Darwinism is a potent intellectual challenge to Christianity because it deeply undermines the Christian anthropology. It brings unwelcome news about the nature of human nature itself, in terms of its origins, its purposes, and its possible trajectory. Far from demonstrating the mechanism by which God might have elevated humanity, it breaks the great chain of being and obliterates any concept of elevation. And from the outside, it seems to me that it deals a fatal blow to the doctrine of original sin, inasmuch as the aspects of human nature identified with that sin can now be identified as part of the process of creation itself, part of the reason human beings even exist.
I’m not a Christian, so it’s not my job to speculate how a challenge like that might be met by Christianity. But it strikes me as comparably profound to the ancient Israelite encounter with Hellenism, an encounter that ultimately resulted in the birth of Christianity. It’s a profound challenge to liberalism as well; I don’t think it’s an accident that the first round of social ideologies to be inspired by the Darwinian idea were profoundly (and in many cases disastrously) illiberal, or that liberalism has almost completely failed to reckon with the ways in which it erodes the basis for the rights-bearing individual that is so foundational to any kind of liberalism. In both cases, it is both a worthy and necessary challenge, a matter of truth confronting truth, which is precisely the kind of problem that intellectuals are supposed to be adept at tackling.
So from my perspective, that would be a sign of waning intellectual decadence: a Christian who accepted in full a Neo-Darwinian account of human origins setting out to explain the implications of same, and what it means to affirm the Christian understanding of human nature and its place in God’s world in that context. That’s a job worthy of a latter-day Aquinas. For the rest, I don’t know — maybe it’s just that I’m Jewish, but they strike me as practical rather than intellectual challenges, and it is perhaps itself a sign of intellectual decadence if we confuse the former for the latter.