On Joseph Bottum’s Enchantment and Public Arguments

Joseph Bottum is back to singing the “re-enchantment” song, suggesting that conservatives ought give up “preaching social ethics” because it’s “boring and it’s doomed”:

Forget the culture-wars crap. It was a fight worth having, back in the day when there was enough Christendom left to be worth defending. But such as American Christendom was, the collapse of the Mainline has brought it to an end. Start, instead, with re-enchantment: Preach the word of God in the trees and rivers. The graves giving up their dead. The angels swirling around the Throne. Existence itself figuring the Trinity, in how we live and move and have our being. Christ crucified and Christ resurrected. All the rest can follow, if God wants.

He then added this in response to Rick Garnett, an excellent Catholic pro-life lawyer who offered his own response:

Forgive me then, Rick, if I continue to propose that ordinary prayer and everyday awareness of the reality of God are more likely to find willing ears—if I preach the metaphysics of Christianity rather than the law-and-policy-betrayed social ethics of tattered old Christendom.

There’s a whiff of false dichotomy there in Bottum’s approach to these things, which Garnett picks up on as well, and an artificial universality that inevitably accompanies sweeping prolegomena of this sort.  We might all say “yes” to re-enchantment, but mysticism won’t make it very far in a courtroom.  It may be that legal changes are a rear-guard action, an attempt to stitch together a fraying social fabric and hence unlikely to hold forever. Bottum’s right that laws are neither permanent nor the dominant forces shaping culture.

But then it’s a mistake to say that the law and social questions are somehow divorced or separate from the possibility of re-enchantment, too, the way that Bottum seems to imply when he suggests that we ought pursue re-enchantment first.  The legal disputes about marriage have actually presented conservatives with their best opportunity in decades to help people get clear on intractable beauty and goodness of marital bonds.

Bottum would have us not speak of the legal case until we “preach the word of God in trees and rivers.  But why not instead preach that word within the meaning of marriage, since that’s what people are interested in sorting out these days?  The arguments in the courtroom may have to be boring.  But it seems that an enchanted imagination might see something more in the public controversies that ensue than simply a dispute about the law.  Such controversies may be providential summons to our society to rediscover the nature of a lost goodness.  The enchanted strains of the beauty of the world may be drowned out by the culture wars.  But it’s not clear why we would want to chastise the clamoring insistence that there is something important here, about this thing that drives our public debates.  We ought to have more public chattering about these things, more dialogue and disputation, even if it seems repetitive and boring.  If our “social ethics” does not contain the mysteries it needs to transform the hearts, then we ought keep pressing inward.  We were made for more, after all, and all who seek….find.

Which is to say, it is true that conservatives haven’t been particularly aesthetically minded in their public pursuits.  But to steal from another writer who knew a thing or two about an enchanted cosmos himself, if anything is worth doing it’s worth doing badly.

But that line expresses the heroic mysticism of those who advocate for traditional marriage or the pro-life causes, despite them having very little odds of “success.”   The very sort of enchantment that Bottum wants such advocates already embody, even if they so with less flair than Bottum or I might want.  We ought pursue re-enchantment. But that won’t tell us whether any particular law is just or not. A government has only one option to preserve its legitimacy, and a society only one option if it is to discover enchantment by any means other than total disintegration:  we must pursue justice without heed for the long-term consequences of our actions, consequences which we cannot control, much less reliably foresee given the massively complex set of factors at work in any situation.

Conservatives of every sort are perpetually in danger of allowing prudential concerns about retaining a “seat at the table” of cultural influence and power to crowd out their cheerful obstinance on the grounds of their principles.  It is precisely because we do not know the future and that we are not responsible for those who assail us that we can promote unpopular goods without concern for their “effectiveness” or “utility.”  Few outlooks are so opposed to Bottum’s “enchantment” project than that of consequentialism, it too can sneak into our consciousness through rather poetic means.  Maintaining a hopeful belligerence and willingness in the face of seemingly impossible conditions may be a short path toward cultural marginalization; but it’s just that sort of mystical disinterestedness in pragmatism that I think Bottum wants.  It is a belligerent affirmation that these things are worth doing for their own sake, even if we go about doing them badly.  Conservative Christians might be tempted to remind themselves that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and so be of good heart.  But I doubt the martyrs themselves were interested in that when they climbed up on the pyre:  they were on the side of the right and were about to meet God, and what else matters?  To steal again, we ought to love effectiveness like life and drink our failures like wine.

Conservative Christians need the poetic imagination of Bottum and others; but we need to enfold it into our public argumentation about these contested questions, to see these things poetically while also considering them legislatively and legally.  Social ethics need not be sterile, and a strong dose of poetry may open up ways of putting things that the philosophers had not yet considered.  But we ought not forget that poetic, heroic lives are where enchantment properly begins.  And in the face of injustice, those who spend their lives advocating for the laws, making philosophical arguments, and doing the dry, boring work of social ethics are not engaged in a lesser task than those poets who remind us of the beauty and goodness of the world we live within.  Nor is it a less urgent task.  For we are all called to courageously and cheerfully say how the world is, in the grammars where God has placed us, with the sort of radical disinterest in our own work’s success that turns us to ask that it would be founded in prayer.

email
  • http://cincinnatusploughsare.blogspot.com/ J.A.A. Purves

    Re: “Conservatives of every sort are perpetually in danger of allowing prudential concerns about retaining a ‘seat at the table’ of cultural influence and power to crowd out their cheerful obstinance on the grounds of their principles.”

    I don’t think conservatives can have this discussion without paying attention to T.S. Eliot/Russell Kirk’s insight that politics is the reflection of culture and not the other way round. Burke wrote about balancing prudence with principle in the 1790s and this balance has been the art of conservative thinking ever since. The right dichotomy is not between prudence or principles, particularly since prudence is supported by principle. The problem with trying to fight “culture wars” is that it often surrenders ground on the meaning of culture to begin with. If culture is ultimately what shapes politics, then cultural/human problems will not be solved by passing a law.

    The marriage debate is a good example of this. If conservatives BEGIN by arguing that “gay marriage” ought to be illegal, we’ve already surrendered the question of whether government power is the solution to the problem. What if, instead, we began by looking at how culture ought to view marriage first? If that has already been broken, then skipping ahead to fighting over legal remedies won’t address the root of the problem. Bottom explicitly admits that merely placing metaphysics before ethics is lacking in nuance, but I think his broader point is that publically advocating for something like a Marriage Constitutional Amendment could be counterproductive if it ignores the reality of Christianity’s modern separation from culture.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      There’s lots of wisdom here and lots that I agree with. But I also am not sure about the sort of pure distinction between politics and culture that you’re proposing, nor am I quite convinced by the pure approach about where we should *begin.*

      Why not simply say that we have found ourselves in the midst of *this set* of legal challenges and questions, and take them up because they have been placed upon us, and set about describing the world in an enchanted way while doing so?

      Matt

      • http://cincinnatusploughsare.blogspot.com/ J.A.A. Purves

        Point taken. Culture is obviously broader than politics. Politics concerns primarily the wielding of political power. Each cannot be divided neatly into distinct categories. But what bothers me is this idea of “simply” saying that we are in the middle of “this set of legal challenges and questions.” As you so thoughtfully pointed out in your book, many questions are NOT neutral. This is particularly true of legal questions.

        This is why T.S. Eliot warned against what he called “states of mind” or “common assumptions” that can “infect” both the defenders AND the opponents of political action. This infection can result in a point of view that becomes the only point of view “in which public speech can be framed.” Eliot argues that this “is very bad for the English language: it is this disorder (for which we are all to blame) and not individual insincerity, which is responsible for the hollowness of many political and ecclesiastical utterances.”

        I’m beginning to fear that conservatives have surrendered too much. Sometimes, by willingly jumping into some political battles, we have already unnecessarily surrendered the actual framing of those battles. Isn’t it possible that the conservative, by joining the “set of legal challenges and questions” that are currently being posed in the marriage debate, is already surrendering the a priori question of whether the debate ought to even be about the exercise of political power in the first place?

        • Geoffrey Bullock

          It is very hard to pray ‘Father, let your kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, and not bring the will and purposes of God to every aspect of human life & culture. As JAA Purves says, ‘politics is the reflection of culture’. Culture can be changed – as he and Joseph Bottum say – by proclaiming the ‘enchantment’. But it can also change through changed laws. Laws are educative! Laws dictate how we are to live! Archbishop Charles Chaput put it well: “We belong to God, and our home is heaven. But we’re here for a reason: to change the world, for the sake of the world, in the name of Jesus Christ. That work belongs to each of us. Nobody else will do it for us. And the idea that we can somehow accomplish that work of changing the world without engaging … the laws, the structures, the public policies, the habits of mind and the root causes that sustain injustice in our nation, is a delusion.” (Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput 090810).

          • http://cincinnatusploughsare.blogspot.com/ J.A.A. Purves

            Mr. Bullock, no reasonable person would argue that laws are unimportant to our society. The debate here is whether the exercise of political power in order to change culture is appropriate. The conservative position insists that, more often than not, positive law is neither effective nor appropriate for changing culture (especially in democratic societies). This is not always the case. This is only a general principle, not an absolute one. But even if there are exceptions, it may still be prudent that we pursue such exceptions only as a last resort.

      • David R. Graham

        Paul Tillich (1886-1965): “Culture is the form of religion and religion is the substance of culture.”

  • run262

    Bottum’s piece is the latest strain in my generations’ attempt to “sell” Christianity to the masses. It feels gimmicky and full of an agenda. I am tired of these fads and am now more inclined to laugh when I read these pieces more than anything. Maybe that is bad, but I cannot help it. I long for someone just to stand on principle and speak truth with love and humility. Is that too much to ask?

    To say that Christianity is not concerned with human ethics is just plain false. Both Christ and the early apostles speak extensively on what it means to be good and what that looks like as a Christ-follower in this world. When they said these things it was profoundly offensive to the “culture” of the day because it was opposite of what the culture of the day celebrated. So offensive that the Christians were martyred.

    One can argue that mistakes have been made in how the culture wars have been waged, but to claim that Christianity should have nothing to do with it is absurd. Incidentally, I guess Jesus missed the memo when he didn’t hire a PR campaign to “sell” His message. I wonder if He ever agonized over whether His words and teachings were “boring.”

  • http://stowellbrown.blogspot.com/ stowellbrown

    I think some Christians are called to fight the good fight in the court of law, some are called to fight from the pulpit, but others are called to fight one on one, while others are called to fight through prayer. We are not fighting against flesh and blood.

  • Thursday1

    On the question of disenchantment, I tend to combine the insights of James K.A. Smith with those of Joe Henrich et al. the authors of the WEIRD paper. Basically, the modern way of life is a giant liturgy for turning us into materialists of one sort or another. Our whole way of life is changing how we view the world, down to our very perceptions. Because of this, most people in the modern West have much diminished religious intuitions and perceptions, and simply cannot “see” spiritual realities out in the world: ghosts, gods and fairies, of course, but also purposes, ideals, and essences. The cosmos is all just meaningless “stuff,” with maybe a distant God and a disembodied soul tacked on as an afterthought.

    Of course, none of this was really designed or intended by anyone, but it is real nonetheless. And it pervades all of modern life.

    As for remedies, mere preaching, mere words, simply will not do. Our whole way of life needs to change.

    There is a popular summary of Henrich et al.’s work here and the full paper is here. I presume you know where to find Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom.

    • Thursday1

      Dreher comments here

    • David R. Graham

      Concur. Suggest family monasticism, celibacy as marriage fidelity, with children, of course. Most importantly, do not fight on a field of the enemy’s choosing. Choose your own and chose wisely, to win.

      “Let’s start with the brute theological point: At its root, Christianity is a metaphysics, not an ethics. It begins as a claim about what is, not a claim about how people ought to behave or what laws they ought to pass.”

      Bottum is correct in that statement. Christianity is a soteriological power, not a playbook. Our religion is under concerted attack. Meaning, God is. Back to the interior monastery and its regular prayers.

  • Michael_Rittenhouse

    An argument over the definition of marriage feels half-argued without a description of the beauty of orthodox marriage.

    Isn’t that why we lose so many of these referendums? Syllogisms don’t move the heart.