Dialogue with Douthat

The latest issue of First Things includes an essay by Ross Douthat on Maritain and Catholic post-liberalism, with a response by me, and a reply by Douthat. My thanks to Douthat for his thoughtful essay and reply.

I do want to note one thing about his reply. In my response I had made the following point about the foundations of modern culture:

The twin foundations of the Enlightenment philosophy, which had such great influence on the social, economic, and technological changes in modernity, are the rejection of teleology in nature and the rejection of the authority of the church. To oppose one without opposing the other is to fight with one hand tied behind one’s back.

In reply Douthat wrote:

I am not sure this is true. After all, a belief in “teleology in nature” is hardly unique to Catholic Christendom: It belongs to pre-Christian antiquity, to non-Christian civilizations and our fellow Abrahamic monotheists, and to the ecumenical Protestantism that was foundational to the American republic. To insist that one must accept not just Christianity, not just the theological claims of Catholicism, but the political claims of the medieval or nineteenth-century church in order to reject eliminative materialism and gnostic superstition seems both intellectually and historically false. And the idea (traditionally associated with this journal) of an ecumenical alliance against these errors still seems like a more immediately effective way to answer them in a pluralist society than does arguing that teleology stands or falls on papal authority to an audience that is a great distance from being converted to the Catholic faith.

This rather misses the point of the metaphor. Of course it is possible to fight with one hand tied behind one’s back. But why would you? And of course it is possible to reject materialism without rejecting political secularism. That’s not the point. The point is that it is more difficult to overcome an adversary with one hand behind one’s back, and it is more difficult to combat modern secularist culture if one only opposes one of its principles. The emergence of our “secular age” (to use Charles Taylor’s expression) was a contingent event, rooted in contingent developments. Ecclesial corruption and scandals certainly had their part to play, but they are present at any given time. There were, however, two particularly important contingent developments that were peculiar to modernity:

1) The emergence of a neo-Democritan, a-teleogical understanding of nature as the dominant scientific view. Democritans and Epicureans have existed before, obviously, but they were not able to establish their view as the consensus. In modernity they were, and their view was institutionalized in the practice of modern natural science, modern technology, and modern industrial capitalism. Not that it would have been impossible to have analogous scientific and technological advances without the denial of teleology, but rather that the contingent way in which those things developed in modernity tended to reenforce that premise.

2) The construction of political secularism—i.e. the insulating of political action from “religious truth” claims. This political secularism (dis-integralism) was institutionalized in the modern state with its claims to “sovereignty” in the peculiarly modern sense of that term.

While there are other developments that one could add to those two, I believe those two are crucial. Moreover, I believe that to overcome modern secularist culture all of its foundations have to be radically challenged. Not because they are inseparable (they are not), but because they are all false, and the anti-culture of our day rests on all of them. Of course one can oppose 1 without opposing 2. But I think that one ought to oppose both. One can even oppose 2 without being fully integralist (as the post-war Maritain did), but, as I argued, to oppose it more fully one must oppose it more radically.

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2 thoughts on “Dialogue with Douthat

  1. I don’t think Douthat missed the point of the metaphor; I think he just disagrees it’s apt. You claim that “it is more difficult to combat modern secularist culture if one only opposes one of its principles.” This claim is dubious. For example, it’s hard to believe that the pro-life movement would have been more successful if Catholics in the movement had insisted on talking about papal authority at the March for Life, rather than pursuing the ecumenical alliance that Douthat references. To be persuasive, integralists have to give details about how they think an integralist vision would have made it less difficult to combat modern secularist culture in the context of particular culture war issues like abortion or gay marriage. The ecumenical alliance has certainly suffered many defeats, but it’s hard to imagine any instance in which a movement led by Catholic integralists would have performed better.

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    • To combat more than one of its principles does not mean that on every issue one has to bring every issue into the discussion; it means that to really transform the world you need to fight on more than one issue. The pro-life movement would be unlikely to be successful if it were the only issue in which we ever challenged the status quo. The point is not that one should make the pro-life movement about integralism, rather than the natural law prohibition on the taking of innocent human life. The point is rather that false, modern understandings of human freedom have to be challenged on multiple fronts to be overcome.

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