Reimagining American Community

gkchoraleSecular states and secular nations have this problem.

It’s a problem which has been approached by such major figures in philosophy as the Canadians George Grant and Charles Taylor, the English theologian John Milbank and several others.  The economistic high priesthood of modern capitalism, the political high priesthood of the laicist republican nation-state and the cultural high priesthood of Hollywood, pop idols and mass consumerism, all serve to confine the reality in which we live.  Having been birthed by the spreading suspicion that material benefit (wealth, power, goods, sexual pleasure) is the highest and the best end of human life, that suspicion has since calcified into the conviction that material benefit is the only end of human life – and that it is best furthered by precisely the articulators and self-appointed arbiters of secular reality:  capital, the state and the cultural elite.  But at the same time, we experience a contradiction, a ‘cross pressure’:  a dissatisfaction and anger with secular reality, stemming from the countervailing suspicion that this is ‘not all there is’.

Sadly, the most common expression of this suspicion is in those transcendentalisms directly sanctioned and supported by the modern moral order of secular reality:  moralistic therapeutic deism and the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ phenomenon, related to what philosopher Robert Bellah called ‘Sheila-ism’ (a wholly individualist re-purposing of religion).  Various fundamentalist movements also make doomed attempts to refute modernism from within its own ontology – Islamism makes use of the political ontology of violence or fundamentalist Protestantism making use of a scientific-materialist ontology to try to attack evolution.  On the other hand, we have also noted other aesthetic counter-cultural expressions of this dissatisfaction which deserve careful attention:  punk (including steampunk and cyberpunk), heavy metal, goth, emo and the strange, self-protecting phenomenon of hipsterism.  Most or all of these latter emphasise some ethic of authenticity and a social spirituality – which is to say, a truer spirituality – emphasising something other than material benefit.  But these are all expressions, to some extent, of the ‘cross pressure’ facing people living within a secular reality which is flattened to include only things immanent.

Though I realise I wade out into dangerously Hegelian waters by saying so, it is tempting to view this problem, and these expressions of resistance, as various attempts at a negation, a rejection of the social facts of secularism.  But, given the heterogeneity of these expressions, and the dominating logic of the secular state which extends over and tries to explain and police these expressions, it strikes me that there will likely be no easy ‘synthesis’.  What can be done, however, is to look to the roots of this logic.

John Milbank would likely begin by saying that ‘once upon a time, there was no secular’.  Whether or not this is true (and I tend to think it is), it is absolutely true that the secular did not always have the iron grip upon the public imagination that it does now.  Within Christendom, the state had to share its time and its space with the expressions of a church which could lay its own claim upon the moral imaginations of its laity – so influential was this claim that it has continued to shape all of the secular theory which has followed it.  For example, Milbank observed that the ‘social contract’ of Hobbes and Locke was based in an Enlightenment countermyth against Genesis about the human condition.  Before him, Nikolai Berdyaev and Fr Sergei Bulgakov noted that Marxism was actually an eschatological religion portending a revolution rather than revelation, and seeking salvation in the proletariat as a messianic class.  In order to get at the roots of secular logic and the problems contained within it, it is thus vital to explore in further detail the engagement between the state and the Church.  Fr Stanley Harakas, the Greek Orthodox priest and professor of theology, ethics and political theory, identifies four main patterns of state-church engagement in Christendom:

  •    1. Papocaesarism (theokrateia) – the subordination of secular authority to the church
  •    2. Caesaropapism (autokrateia) – the subordination of church authority to the state
  •    3. Laicity – the separation of the state, whether friendly or hostile, from all church affairs
  •    4. Harmony (symphoneia) – the complementarian, active accord between church and state, acting in distinct but mutually-supportive roles

Caesaropapism, or autokrateia (‘self-government’, that is, a government consisting of a single self), vests all power, sacral and secular, within a single body following the rules of the saeculum.  Caesaropapism was followed first in the Byzantine Empire when the Emperor acted as the head of the Church, and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople served essentially at the Emperor’s pleasure.  However, caesaropapism began to take hold in the West as well, first in a mild form with the Investiture Controversy, then the Reformation and finally in the aftermath of the brutal Thirty Years’ War, in which the religion of the King defined the religion of all the people in his state.  The peace of Westphalia enthroned sovereignty, but sovereignty as defined by autocrats.

The movement of Christendom in a caesaropapist regime, especially in a modern context, tends to promote private pietism and acquiescence to the secular narrative of functionalism in accord with the will of the state, superimposed as it is over the Church.  In other words, religion may be used to articulate certain ‘useful’ norms, to provide certain social services or to answer individual existential questions.  But it can make no claims on public space, let alone on public authorities!  Its expressions are, of necessity, individualistic – and many of the reactions against the secular reality take refuge in such individualism.  Susannah Black identifies fundamentalism and certain forms of evangelicalism and dispensationalism as Protestant reactions to secular caesaropapism, but I think that to these may also be added the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ types, moralistic therapeutic deists, Sheila-ists and even the politically quietist element within the Protestant mainline.  Though politically opposed to each other, these groups still work out of the same social ontology.

The opposite reaction, therefore, may be seen as appealing, and this is especially a temptation for Roman Catholics.  Papocaesarism first manifested in the High Middle Ages, particularly after the Schism which divided the Franco-Latin Church from the Slavo-Hellene one.  In the name of reform against clerical abuses and laxity, the Franco-Latin Church under Leo IX and Alexander II and formalised theologically by Gregory VII, took on the mantle of fully-immanent, secular authority, and began adopting for itself the organisational stylings of feudalism (often explicitly, with the Popes as feudal lords!), and later of proto-capitalism.  This movement to assume political power, and to proclaim ‘kingdom now!’, is tempting particularly in a secularist age where the Church has been reduced to a spectator in the public arena, but this movement is one which dooms itself the moment it has begun.

For the Western Church to begin aping the saeculum was a grievous error the first time around.  In seeking to exercise the powers of government for itself, the Church began to give the laity and the saeculum grounds for the belief that the rules of the earthly powers, and not the rule of God, were primary.  It became possible to imagine a social universal order forming without the guiding intelligence of God, and to begin asking questions about how the will of God might be changed.  In addition, certain Western monastic orders (notably the Cistercians), with the assent of the Church to a fee-simple regime, began enclosing the land they owned and employing hired labour rather than the traditional feudal lord-peasant relationship, laying down the groundwork for a money economy and the rise of modern banking.  From the newly-opened possibilities of philosophical voluntarism and nominalism, and from the first inklings of capitalist economic relations, sprang the Renaissance, Machiavelli’s neo-pagan political theory, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  Ironically, then, historical experience would seem to indicate that grasping at this-worldly power is one of the surest ways for the Church to lose her other-worldly authority.

Thus, we must look for alternatives other than papocaesarism.  One will notice immediately that one of these alternatives is not like the others.  Indeed, laicity is a modern invention, a product of the American and French Revolutions, and therefore has no name in Greek antiquity (in modernity, Greeks made up their own word for it, kosmikismos, though they also use the loanword laïkismos).  The track record within the political concept’s short lifetime has been mixed.  It could be said with some justice that laicity is either an unstable or metastable state:  the tendency of formal laicity toward caesaropapism is demonstrated to a significant extent in the history of Communist states, including (for a modern-day example) China, where Party authorities appoint all religious leaders and register all officially-sanctioned forms of public religious expression.  It also manifests itself in an official civic religion, beginning in the French Revolution but manifest to some extent in most representative regimes, which worships the might and right of the nation as embodied in its people.  Examples of polities where this faith makes itself manifest include Kemalism in Turkey and naturally in the French credo of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’.  In both countries there are harsh limits on what manner of religious expression is allowed in the public square, and in which the state, nationalism and the civic religion have a final and definitive claim on a citizen’s loyalties.

But it is possible to tip the balance in the other direction as well.  Laicity and non-establishment in the United States, though in nowhere near as strict a form as in France, has tended to give free reign to mass religious movements beginning with the Great Awakenings – which exert their powers specifically within the public realm and attempt to capture and make use of democratic avenues of public power.  This capture can be oriented to the public good (the movements to abolish slavery and to guarantee civil rights for blacks, for instance), or it can be oriented more destructively (the temperance movement and Prohibition, political Zionism and the dysfunctional marriage of neoconservatism and the religious right in more recent decades).  But the result seems to be a kind of papocaesarism, one susceptible to identitarian politics and demagoguery – ironically, it is in America and in France where ‘kingdom now!’ theology seems to have the most draw on the popular imagination!  But this papocaesarism is still flavoured by secular national mythbuilding:  the religious right in the United States still by and large clings to an idea of America as God’s chosen ‘shining city upon a hill’.

Thus we are left looking at some kind of theory which advocates complementarity of powers – the symphoneia theory, popular amongst the Eastern Orthodox, first put into practice by Saint Emperor Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles and explicated by Emperor Justinian.  The symphoneia theory represents a brotherhood, a familial relationship between Church and state, with each one respecting the other’s proper duties but actively helping and supporting each other – the most common analogy from Scripture is the fraternal relationship between Aaron (the high priest of Israel) and Moses (the leader of the Israelite exodus), though it draws also from Pauline exhortations for believers to respect the state, to obey its laws, and to pray for its leaders.  In turn, however, the state must respect the liminal boundaries of the Church.  Saint Constantine, for example, never tried to enter into the Church councils as one of the bishops, either to rule over them or to be ruled by them, though he did support them from without.

Symphoneia is an ideal for a time, however, when government is aware in the light of the Christian witness of its ultimate accountability before the throne of Christ Pantokrator, and thereby of its temporal responsibilities to be just, to be merciful and to be aggressively compassionate.  We now live in an age where Weberian ideals of impersonal efficiency are normative, rather than a Christianised ethic of virtue – striving after symphoneia in such an environment may be a wild-goose chase, or something even more dangerous.  Two giants of American Orthodox social thought, Fr Stanley Harakas and Dr Vigen Guroian, have placed themselves at odds over precisely this question:  does the impersonal, secular way of doing government, closed to any consideration of the transcendent, preclude any form of church-state engagement modelling itself on the Constantinian-Justinianic ideal?

Guroian fears that symphoneia may be precisely as unstable as laicity in such a case.  He warns that the catholic ecclesiology of the churches laying claim to apostolic succession (Orthodox, Episcopal, Roman Catholic) is directly at odds with secular logic, because a catholic ecclesiology implies and demands a concern for the common good which the state, the market and the culture have systematically cordoned off.  He sees as unacceptable to any aspiration to symphoneia the American state’s insistence that it alone is competent to police the ‘conflicting’ claims of denominational Christianity.  A state which has set itself up in a laicist manner, propounding a pluralist mythos in order to govern through sublimated warfare a vast array of heterogeneous projects, can never enter into a harmonious, equal and complementarian relationship with the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Guroian therefore presents (mirroring contemporary Catholic thinkers like William Cavanaugh and Alasdair MacIntyre) a ‘cenobitic’ option to the followers of Christianity in the United States – preserving the witness of Christianity through ‘discrete disciplined communities of faith’, with lay communities carrying forward from the Eucharist into the surrounding culture the ‘“sign that God, not the nations”, not politics, not economics, not science, nor business nor technology, “rules this world”’.  I don’t think Guroian is being pietist or individualistic here; even if he is proclaiming something which might look in its formal tactics like a Great Awakening, it is posed as a direct challenge to the secular mythos, as opposed to capture of or accommodation to that mythos.

Worth considering, however, is that the positions of Dr Guroian and Fr Stanley are not necessarily at complete odds.  After all, the Early Church Fathers had the culture of a pagan empire to contend with, in many ways as driven by libido dominandi as our own—perhaps even more so, since the pagan Romans, without a history of knowing the Gospel, had fewer restraints upon their pride.  Even if symphoneia would have been difficult-to-unthinkable with a Roman state which saw Christians as a threat to be stamped out, perhaps we should keep that ideal in our hearts and minds to be extended, if ever another Saint Constantine or Emperor Justinian should arise, and a civil order more open to the promise of virtue should result.

It may very well be that the public fruits of our podvig, our Christian struggle for ascesis within the world, to live and thereby show a truer alternative to the problematic confines of secular state-market-culture, will not be seen or tasted within our lifetimes.  As such, Dr Guroian’s cautions against misconstruing the structure of American society and against making ill-advised accommodations to it should be taken seriously.  All the same, Guroian’s ‘cenobitic’ option is not a despairing one.  It would be wrong and a great disservice to the Holy Fathers and to the saints to think of symphoneia as a naïve pipe-dream.  A catholic faith is inescapably a public faith, and giving over the public realm to those who deny any meaningful common good is not an open option for us.

About the Author
Matthew Cooper is a machinist by trade, a development economist by training (but not by temperament) and a blogger by hobby, at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox. He is a Wisconsin native of English, Swabian, Yugoslav and Czech-Jewish extraction, who moved successively so far east - to wit: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kazakhstan, China - that he ended up west of the Mississippi, in Minneapolis. He's a self described Tory radical, but has yet to adequately explain how this squares with his soft spot for Christopher Lasch.