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Stegall on First Things

So what’s going on at First Things? In sum, Bottum contends that accepting the modern state requires the abandonment of any political theology and the concurrent abandonment of natural law in favor of the positive law. Bottum does accept the modern state and therefore is compelled, by intellectual honesty, to abandon man’s experience under nature and within a cosmic narrative, at least in its political form. Neuhaus, on the other hand, contends that to abandon political theology altogether is social suicide, resulting in politics as naked power grabs and constant warfare by other means, and he prescribes as a remedy a renewed attention to natural law.

If it is true that a demythologized modern state has no room for political theology or natural law as Bottum says, and if it is true that a state without a political theology will devolve into raw power politics, either in the open or more likely hidden behind lip service paid to positive law, as Neuhaus says, then the sheer circularity of their contradictory conclusions is dizzying. The fact that Bottum and Neuhaus are so hung up in this intellectual feedback loop is useful for what it reveals: namely, that despite all the valiant efforts of the First Things crew over the years, the modern public square really is naked–which is to say, shorn of any real political theology or mythology–and will always remain so. Better to abandon the liberal project altogether, at which point a penitent, Christian, political theology will again be possible. ~Caleb Stegall, The New Pantagruel

Mr. Stegall's article is closely argued and interesting, but I will need to dwell a little longer on how he reached his very admirable conclusion. More of a response will be forthcoming in future. The conclusion does strike at the heart of First Things' confusion, which seems to have been the desire for public discourse informed by the Faith combined with the editors' allergic reaction to much of Christianity's traditional political anti-liberalism. My hostile reading of First Things' response to the "naked public square" suggests that their motto ought to be, "Making Christianity safe for the liberal tradition." To date the bridge that has made Neuhaus' accommodationist model possible has been natural law--it is the only even nominal common ground between the two traditions First Things tries to fuse together, and if Mr. Stegall has read Bottum correctly (and I am guessing that he has) it would appear that the current editor is removing that bridge and with it whatever intellectual integrity the First Things approach had.

Taken another way, to borrow a concept from the perhaps unlikely source of Chantal Delsol's Icarus Fallen (and, yes, my comments on this book really are coming soon), I think First Things has misunderstood (at least in the Bottum era) the modern goal, which the liberal tradition embodies and shares, of eliminating politics, what Delsol calls the structure of "command and obedience," as a desirable goal for Christians in the world. Christian preoccupation with contract and consent models mistakes the willing obedience of the free Christian to be the same as the willful pursuit of advantage for the self that contract models assume to be "natural." Yet it is precisely that self-will that is our autonomous rebellion against God, our revolt against our own proper nature.

Neither the Apostle in the Epistle to the Romans, nor Bl. Augustine, nor St. Photios imagines that Christians can eliminate the political structure in the world. Certainly, we can transform, reorient, leaven the political order, but we cannot escape the structures of the City of Man. From a reactionary, Bonaldian perspective, it is positively undesirable for Christians to pursue a political order in which command and obedience are not the defining features--Bonald assumed, not unreasonably, that hierarchy and authority were part of the structure of human existence and could not be eliminated without terrible social and political consequences. The editors' acquiescence in the modern project of eliminating the constraints on man, the project of freeing him from his condition, has left First Things grasping for some sort of coherent vision of order.

Daniel Larison | December 11, 2005



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