James Poulos, one of my favorite political writers, has been hammering away recently at our need to frame our political conversations around anthropology and imagination first and policy specifics second. He’s taken up the language of “free radicals” as shorthand for his vision, which I hasten to note is a form of “radical” that has little in common with that which readers of Mere-O are familiar with.
There’s a lot about James’ approach that intrigues me. Like this, for instance:
For Tocqueville, people like us — living in an era when it has become obvious that the definitive thing about us is how similar we all are to each other as humans — two competing anthropologies rise to the fore. According to the first, being human is defined by being in servitude to a heavenly master. According to the second, being human is defined by being in servitude to an earthy master. For people like us, today, that seems to tee up the same old culture clash. But Tocqueville himself made some little-noticed and very pregnant remarks in Democracy in America about just what kind of anthropology would suffice to steer us, in the fragility of our freedom, away from servility before the state and its human masters. He speculated that belief in an immortal soul, or even reincarnation, might be enough.
I offer a rather different answer to the same question. I think it’s an answer that can work not just for Republicans who want to take a shared stand together for the betterment of humankind, but for any particular American who feels that way too. You may be on the edge of your seat about what this anthropology might be. You might be slumped pretty far back in your seat with skepticism and cynicism. Either way, the first hurdle for us to clear is a shared recognition that we should choose not to limit ourselves to a policy conversation — and that without a deeper conversation about what anthropological vision can capture all our imaginations, all the wonkery in the world is largely a waste of some very precious time.
Yet it’s just the details of the anthropological vision that James wants to argue for that I’m uncertain about. James hasn’t worked them out in full, but he has given us a glimmer:
Just as, in biblical religion, one must ponder the possibilities of a God whose name is “I am that I am,” or “I am that I shall become,” in the free-radical vein that I’ve been developing this year, the quaint anthropology of the rational actor who rank-orders his or her preferences is abandoned in favor of a vision of you, me, and everyone as a person who is what he or she shall become — through language, by making authentic declarations acted into being. (By “authentic” I mean born out of an accurate and witnessed acknowledgement of real-life experience, not the distorted judgments formed by imitation, memory, or fear. See, e.g., the language of declaration, direct experience, and sacred honor in the Declaration of Independence.)
We all know, or can know, what it is to experience a clearing-away of mere imitation, of stale or warped memory, and of biting fear, and an a speaking into that empty space of new promises to ourselves and others grounded in little more than what we see newly possible as a choice that inspires us and others into motion. Once shared, this experience occurs to us as profoundly personal and profoundly human.
It’s here whether I wonder how commensurate this alternative vision of anthropology is with traditional Christian teaching about God and our freedoms in light of his providence. The emphasis on “clearing away” and “speaking into that empty space of new promises to ourselves and others grounded in little more than what we see newly possible as a choice that inspires us and others into motion” sounds, to my ear, almost like an optimistic strand of existentialism. The world of things, the “empty space” before us, has been bounded in advance by promises and speakings not of our own choosing or utterance. Such is, it seems to me, the promise of the doctrine of providence. Our task is to discern and live within such boundaries responsibly. Our freedom is only truly free when it has this correlate, when it is responsive to a moral order and to the institutions that bear and communicate that moral order.*
I suspect my worry really arises right at Poulos’s “little more.” James is adopting a minimalist stance , because without such an approach it will never have legs anywhere beyond….places like Mere-Orthodoxy, and we all know how massively influential we are.
Still, it seems that this radical openness to the future and the emphasis on our own near-divine creative activity actually undercuts our humanity while paradoxically humanizing God. By adding “or that I shall become” to the description of God James leaves “biblical religion” behind by introducing an unqualified openness, where the future of God is in no way bound by what he has revealed himself to be. In a sense, that seems to open up space for an abstract “deity” behind the God of the Bible, which is perhaps why James turns toward the language of the Declaration of Independence as resources for his point.
But James’ radical openness also creates a a conception of choice in accordance with imagined possibilities that has no resources to resist the excesses of libertarian posthumanism and all the free unicorns that they want for us. That isn’t an argument for or against per se, as the question of such a future needs to be taken up on its own merit. But it does make it seem unlikely that anyone with conservative theological commitments will be able to buy a ticket on the free radicals train.