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Christians in the Gray Zone: The Strong Gods are Back

March 28th, 2022 | 20 min read

By Jake Meador

In his 1978 commencement address at Harvard University, the great Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn argued that what united the capitalist west and communist east mattered more than what divided them. Both, he said, had lost any feel for the transcendent, any sense of the open sky over our heads, and a God to which we must one day offer an account of ourselves.

The east, he said, had lost the transcendent and, with it, the law. So it became vicious and cruel. Few understand that better than Solzhenitsyn, himself a former gulag prisoner who had also spent time under house arrest. The west, meanwhile, was governed by a strict legalism that confused adhering to written laws with being virtuous. The result was that westerners had become lost in the sensations of their immediate surroundings. We were awash in wealth and pleasure, indifferent to the state of our souls simply because our bodies were so satisfied. Our legalism had made us blind to any higher good.

One particular danger of this legalism is that it regards with some indifference many of the softer virtues that make informal, organic community possible. Legalistic societies will, in time, become low-trust societies because the only way we know to judge right and wrong is adherence to the letter of the law. Character is essentially absent from the picture. But when character is not a concern and all we are left with is coercive force via legalism, many things will begin to slowly unravel.

We might put it this way: Trust is a kind of currency. It helps you to pay for things. When my dad had a brain injury and my parents needed a lot of work done on their house before he could come home, they had church friends who built a wheelchair ramp, demoed the screened-in back porch and downstairs bathroom, and then rebuilt a handicap accessible bathroom. They refused to accept any payment from my parents save Oreos and Mountain Dew. That is the sort of thing trust can pay for.

When trust is absent, the problems that trust pays for do not go away; they simply must be paid for in some other way. Usually, that way will be coercion, either via the exchange of money which obliges someone toward action, or via government action, which more directly coerces the parties involved toward specific behaviors. Over time, money and politics, both of which are merely species of what Simone Weil referred to as “force,” become the only way that people relate to one another, accomplish things together, and so on.

And yet if enough people have enough money, the system can seem to work for awhile. Indeed, if you dissolve trust and social bonds and replace them with individual autonomy and lots of money, that can actually feel quite liberating for as long as the party lasts. And so it was for a time. For a short window, we lived in what Australian missiologist Mark Sayers has called a secular sabbath: Chaos had been subdued, the enemies were defeated or held at bay, and so life had become about little more than good feelings and having good experiences that produced good feelings. If anything, the permanence of the secular sabbath seemed even more certain after Solzhenitsyn’s eastern world fell in 1991 with the shattering of the Soviet Union.

A British politician once had said that “events, dear boy, events,” would define his legacy. Many thought that these “events” were at an end. Ushered into a brave new era by liberal democracy, we would have robust individual liberties, booming economies, and global peace forever, world without end, amen. To borrow another descriptor from Sayers, the world had entered the Kingdom of God, only without God. It turned out he wasn’t needed. We had the kingdom without the king.

But then came the stock market crash and Obergefell and Brexit and Trump and plummeting birth rates and COVID and, finally, Ukraine. The days of glasnost and the end of history had ended. Once again a power in the east rose and said, “we will bury you.” Once again a land war broke out in eastern Europe. The myth of the post-war west was that we could banish these strong gods, we could banish transcendence, and by doing that we could secure peace in our time—and security as well. That promise has failed. The strong gods are back.

The Open Society: 1945-2015

C. S. Lewis opens his much loved sermon “The Weight of Glory,” by observing that in his lifetime he had seen a shift in what virtues Christian Europe esteemed. When he was younger, the chief of the virtues had been love. Yet, Lewis said, in more recent years he had seen a shift away from love and toward unselfishness, with a positive term being replaced by a negative. And that shift Lewis observed would hold in the western world for many years even after the great Oxford don’s death.

It became the signature trait of the post-war west, what First Things editor Rusty Reno has referred to as “the open society.” A hardline individualism and market orientation served as an obvious foil to the collectivization and socialism of the Communist east. We defined “freedom” and “liberty” as “maximizing potential choices” and built a society designed to engender that sort of freedom. It meant that we became “free” from the judgments of our communities, indeed free from community itself, and we became, each of us, free to chart our own path, independent of the wisdom of the past or concern for the future.

This also had the effect of loosening the bonds that people had felt to their countries as well as, often, their families and their religion. But this was thought to be more feature than bug because it was precisely those strong commitments to those things that helped fuel the cataclysmic wars the west had just endured. Loosening, openness, even a kind of weakening, these we were told offered the way to individual happiness and enduring peace.

Reno describes it this way,

Three decades of mass mobilization left Europe exhausted, and a consensus formed that the West could not endure another round of nationalist zealotry. The way forward would require weakening the powerful loyalties that bound men to their homelands. In some circles, this consensus also held that communist totalitarianism suffered from the same dark disease. Ideological commitment and passion lead to brutality and moral blindness.

Though it is usually remembered for its opening line, “imagine there’s no heaven,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” is really a fitting summary of the whole spirit of the age:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

If there was nothing to kill or die for, there would be no need for war and so there would be peace. That was the idea. And even as I grew up in the 90s the open society, existing under the benevolent creed of non-judgmentalism, still ruled. Tolerance and inclusivity were the chief values I heard extolled by the world and everyone’s favorite Bible verse was the first phrase of Matthew 7:1: Judge not.

This, of course, is not the world we live in today. Something has shifted. But what? Sayers says that what we are passing through today is a “gray zone,” by which he means a time of uncertainty and gradation, as one clearly defined epoch in human history slowly fades and another rises in its place. But what is the era we are leaving behind? And what are we emerging into?

Some would say that we are leaving behind Christendom, or at least a regime that would tolerate public expressions of Christianity, and entering into a post-Christian moment that has little room for faith in the public square.

According to this line of thought, the “break” really happened in 2015. That was the year when relatively banal Religious Freedom Restoration Acts proposed in Indiana and Arkansas became matters of enormous public controversy. Only months after those controversies ended, the Supreme Court redefined marriage with the Obergefell ruling. These two events signaled to many American Christians that the nation had changed, it had rejected Christianity, and it was set on a new course.

But now I wonder if we’ve got the chronology wrong. 2015 did mark a break, but I suspect not from being a society friendly to Christianity to one hostile to Christianity. Rather, I think it was the transition from a truly post-Christian society into something new and quite different. In other words, it might be truer to say that the open society that dominated from the mid 20th century into the early years of the 21st was actually the post-Christian society.

In his discussion of what it means for a culture to be “post-Christian”, Sayers argues that to be post-Christian means to be negatively shaped by Christianity. In other words, the prevailing value system and philosophy of the culture, is founded in an inversion of Christian ideas or in a direct repudiation of them. What this means is that the “post-Christian” culture is inherently reactive, it has no positive vision of the good community within itself; it can only define itself in contrast to what it is not: Christian. But there is no positive drive within a post-Christian culture, no strength, no transcendence.

To put it in concrete terms, when we move from Christendom to a post-Christian culture, “love” becomes “unselfishness,” as Lewis observed. Christian conceptions of belonging give way to the vagaries of inclusivity. Peaceable living amongst neighbors makes way for “coexistence.” Christianity’s conception of freedom, which has strong communal elements and is chiefly positive in nature—freedom to actualize one’s true nature by living in accordance with the moral law—is replaced by a conception of freedom with virtually no communal component and an exclusively negative idea of freedom—freedom from the judgments of others, from coercion, from any unchosen identity or obligation that was put on you without your choosing. Work, understood by Christianity as one of the primary ways we love neighbor, was redefined under the open society as being solely for making money. Where does one even begin on sex? Christianity holds out a vision of sex that recognizes it as being unnecessary for the good life but still a natural good to be enjoyed within marriage and, amongst other things, intended to create new life. The open society gave us no-fault divorce, the pill, and the devaluing and breakdown of both marriage and the family that followed. Sex, intended to be a giving of oneself for the pleasure of the other and the creation of new life, was transformed into merely another form of self-expression.

Finally, because Christianity was inextricably bound up with the supernatural, transcendence, enchantment, and all the rest, the open society had to banish these things, replacing them with anodyne values that may not stir the heart toward contemplation of grand things and great beauties, but also will not stir it to war.

Politics-as-Religion Culture

But then Sayers goes on to describe a regime that comes after post-christian culture. Call it politics-as-religion culture or post-post Christian culture. Why does this culture arise?

The problem is you can only run on negation and reaction for so long. Eventually you have to start building something different, something new. And you have to do it together. Privatized personal peace and affluence can shape a society when they’re broadly available to everyone. But a society chiefly ordered to those goods is inherently a society that can’t sustain that kind of life for everyone. If you’re committed to private peace and wealth as the highest goods, you’re indifferent to neighbor. And if enough people are indifferent to enough neighbors, you will inevitably get widespread inequality and injustice.

This inevitability was simply priced into the open society model, for if each of us is freed and detached from whatever obligations we owe to one another, if we each have the right to define our own concept of meaning, then inevitably many people will be left behind. When that happens, it is only a matter of time before a new program will emerge. The mass discontentment, inequality, and mistrust bred by the open society over time makes it basically inevitable. And that is when you leave post-Christian culture behind and enter the world that seems to be emerging before us today.

Under post-post Christian culture, we still aren’t Christian, but we’re also not animated chiefly by a reaction against Christianity. We’re animated, instead, by a need to rediscover higher goods and loftier ambitions that go beyond mere prosperity and comfort. We want transcendence back. We want glory back. We want things that are worth dying for back. “Our hearts are restless,” Augustine said. And it turns out material comfort isn’t sufficient to satiate our restlessness.

And so we now live in a world where politics serves as a stand-in for religion—and it does this on both the political right and political left.

First, consider the right: In the pages of First Things, the right wing Catholic author Sohrab Ahmari has called for a politics that aims at “defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” His colleague on the Catholic right, Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule has, meanwhile, called for a state that aggressively advances its particular idea of the good life and the common good, writing in an essay in The Atlantic that,

Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them—perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits , and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.

If this paragraph calls to mind Communist-era ideas about “re-educating” the public so as to conform to the party’s philosophy, well, yes. That is the problem. This kind of political idolatry on the right obliterates the liberal values of the open society.

Meanwhile, the young left has left tolerance, open-mindedness, and non-judgmentalism behind. Indeed, they are quite ready to make judgments today, often far more ready than are many conservatives. The left has carried forward this idea of the open society about each of us possessing a right to self-designation. They still would say that each of us has a sacred and inviolable right to define our own concept of meaning.

But here is where the screws get turned a little more: If all unchosen identities and constraints are a violation of my human rights, then, first, government has a moral obligation to support this work of self-making. Second, anyone who tries to inhibit that self-expression is committing a grave injustice. If you are, for instance, publicly critical of the transgender movement, you are, as they see it, inherently violating the basic dignity of trans individuals. You are making the public square unsafe for them. You’re telling them they can’t be their true, authentic selves. And all of this is a horrible injustice that can’t be tolerated in society because to tolerate that is to betray the basic dignity and rights of trans individuals.

The LGBT+ movement is illiberal because it has no other option but to be. The inner selves that each of us have a right to express in the world are fragile (they’re fragile, of course, because they cut so radically against the natural design of reality) and if the world is to be safe for such identities, then anything that opposes them simply can’t be tolerated. The transcendent goal of the left, then, is an authentic maximization of choice for every single individual for the purpose of self-creation. To deny people choice is to deny them the ability to self-create, the ability to do what is the single most important thing in life.

When addressing abortion during the 2016 presidential campaign, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that religious beliefs that, amongst other things, opposed a woman’s right to choose “would have to be changed.” The same rule would apply for those religious beliefs that oppose the sexual revolution.

What we are left with, then, are matching political idolatries that ironically share a common fault: In their search for a more communitarian politics to help them escape the stultifying deadness of the open society, they have actually arrived at political ideologies that make communal life far more difficult by demanding a far higher degree of intellectual homogeneity than you are ever likely to get in any society, let alone a society as steeped in individualism as the west is and furnished with so many tools further designed to heighten individuality, such as smartphones and social media.

What is to be done?

During such times of upheaval, one question comes to dominate others: What is to be done? This is the question countless Russian intellectuals raised in the years leading up to the October 1917 revolution as they observed their sclerotic nation, torn between wealthy and powerful elites and the suffering masses. It created an obviously unsustainable condition that was further accelerated by technological transformations and philosophical changes roiling Europe. This all made for a slow fermentation that would, eventually, recreate Russia. Many recognized that change was coming. But few could agree on what the change needed to be. And so everyone came back to the same question. The radical 19th century theorist Nicolai Chernyshevsky’s novel that inspired many revolutionaries in his day is, in English, titled “What is to be done?” When he wrote a pamphlet outlining his vision for a new Russia, Vladimir Lenin called back to Chernyshevsky’s novel, giving his pamphlet the same name.

Facing a country similarly incoherent and divided and with a similarly uncertain future, we now must ask the same question. What is to be done?

Let’s narrow the problem down a bit by making two observations.

First, the choice to withhold judgment, which is paradigmatic of the open society, is not inherently wrong. It can be wrong, of course. But there are often times when the choice to withhold judgment is right and good. Each of us lives with a profound ignorance of many things, after all. We pass through the world with, if we are honest, alarmingly limited knowledge of ourselves, let alone of our neighbors or of the natural rhythms of the places where we live. Given that ignorance, caution and a reluctance to act against another is wise. It is a recognition of the fact that we are not sovereign, nor are we able to know perfectly or judge perfectly. And so in many cases, it is better to withhold judgment than to judge wrongly.

Second, there is another word for “withholding judgment when it is arguably called for.” That word is “mercy.” It is spoken of beautifully by Portia in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

One of liberalism’s foremost virtues is this commitment to mercy, even if that commitment did, as it was malformed over time, help lead to the wholesale abandonment of judgment that defined the west’s recent past. To affirm classical liberal ideals like free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and so on is to affirm that people can speak badly, can form unhealthy communities, and that the press can abuse its freedom and yet, still, these freedoms oughtn’t be taken away. We instead respond to such failures with mercy.

Mercy is not a prevailing value anywhere in the west today, of course, where everyone fears being “canceled”, online shaming is a fact of life, and our response to the suffering of our political opposites is more often “they bloody well deserve it,” then anything approaching mercy. The open society may be at an end, but the mercy that tacitly animated it at times mustn’t end with it.

Second, because men are made to know God they are made with a longing for grandeur, transcendence, and beauty which cannot be slaked by anything save union with our creator. And so the need for the transcendent exists deep within us and no amount of comfort or wealth can eradicate it. We need glory and grandeur and splendor. And this is not a purely privatized need either. Our communities also need to be ordered to something lofty. This means that our common life must be organized not purely around a right to be left alone, a desire to make money off one another, or a commitment to some bare procedural means of tolerating one another. We need truth. In one of his more lucid moments, Professor Vermeule spoke well when he said that,

One cannot perpetually stand at a remove from the substance of our common life, pursuing a shadowy half-life of consumerism in the commercial Market while seeing the civic Forum through a glass darkly. Human nature wearies, sickens, and eventually rebels. The Second Vatican Council speaks of man’s restless desire to “live fully according to truth.”

But, of course, it is precisely what we might call the politics of transcendence that often leaves mercy obliterated in its wake, which is rather a heavy blow to the notion that common good constitutionalism is the way in which we can live our common life according to truth. As we already saw, Professor Vermeule looks at citizens who believe wrong things and says, “they must be re-educated.” Secretary Clinton comes to much the same conclusion from the political left.

Perhaps the question “what is to be done?” is another way of asking, “is there a way for us to hold together mercy and transcendence in our common life?” The answer to this question is, “yes, there is.” How?

Love and Politics

The key is recognizing why liberal rights such as free speech, freedom of assembly, and the others matter. To hear the proponents of the open society talk you would think that their significance is purely negative in nature: because power will be abused, power must be severely limited. Don’t let your team have political powers that you wouldn’t want the other team to have.

The trouble with this is, as we have already noted, that it renders the public square functionally atheistic, it insulates common life from religious truth claims, and confines our life together within a steel room, cut off from the things that give that life its true purpose and significance. Indeed, it betrays such a fear of power that I do sometimes wonder if this is just a species of anarchism. But do the classic liberal rights inherently mean our public square must be atheistic? Is the problem with the rights? It is not. It is, rather, the way in which those rights are being established and defended.

The argument for free speech is not purely negative: aren’t you scared of what your political enemies would do if they could regulate speech? That is a consideration, of course, but a prudential one.

The true foundation for a right such as free speech is the Christian teaching concerning love of neighbor. There is a rightful sovereignty one has over one’s self, and that should not be abridged or assailed by the magistrate without very good reason. When we preserve free speech rights, we are preserving the material conditions that help us to love our neighbors better by giving them access and opportunity to speak what they believe to be true and for us to then converse about that together, seeking truth together. Moreover, in doing this we inherently preserve the idea of persuasion as a public good and the notion that men live best when they freely move toward and with one another of their own accord because it is what seems best to them rather than due to fear of coercion.

In other words, we can preserve the reluctance to exercise judgment, characteristic of the recently departed open society, without lapsing into a sort of political atheism, wholly captive to imminence, as the post-liberals fear. We can, and must, have a common life ordered toward the transcendent and seasoned with mercy.

What does this look like in practice? I’ll propose two examples.

First, consider the story of Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. Valjean is a convict. As a young man, he had stolen bread to feed his family and was caught and served 19 years in prison. After he left, he couldn’t find work because French law required him to carry a yellow passport identifying him as a convict. Upon seeing the passport, no one would hire him. Then one night a priest invites him to stay the night. He feeds him. He shelters him. It’s a poor home, but what he has, the priest gives. There is only one expensive thing left in the home: Some spoons, forks, and cups made of silver along with some silver candlesticks.

Valjean wakes in the night, steals the cutlery and cups, and flees. He is caught and hauled before the priest by local police. They tell the priest the obviously absurd story Valjean told them: He claimed the priest gave him the silver. The priest looks at Valjean and then at the police. Then he says, “Yes, that is right,” and then he scolds Valjean for leaving the best behind: the candlesticks. The priest takes the candlesticks and puts them in Valjean’s bag. The police release him. And after they leave, the priest tells Valjean that with that silver he has bought his soul for God. Though at first the weight of that mercy threatens to crush Valjean, in time it changes him. He receives mercy and, gradually, learns to offer it himself. A man who looked destined to spend the rest of his life in prison, his soul growing in bitterness even as his body breaks down under the hard labor, is made new by grace. This is the work of mercy in-action.

Of course, this is an extreme case and it is a case involving a pastor who, perhaps, will feel more freedom to speak directly to the spiritual realities that drive our behaviors. But what of the rest of us?

If you’ll forgive a less lofty but perhaps equally beautiful literary example, I actually think we can find help here in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I think the life at the wizarding school of Hogwarts under the leadership of Dumbledore captures something of what common life, ordered to something lofty yet seasoned by mercy, can look like.

Hogwarts is an orderly place. It has a defined way of living, it has rules, it has structures. Students receive detentions. Teachers command authority and respect. And yet there remains an apparent chaos about Hogwarts: ghosts popping in and out of walls, poltergeists randomly attacking students. There is also a certain failure there: the divination professor is a fraud, the history of magic professor a dreadful bore. And there is the constant presence of Slytherin House: a house within the school whose chief attributes are cunning and ambition. Slytherin is practically an incubator for dark wizards who go on to do dreadful things.

And yet all of this is tolerated under Dumbledore. Why? Because Dumbledore loves it all and he has hope for it all. He constantly withholds judgment, giving people opportunity to change, to grow, to learn. For Dumbledore this love is not a sentiment. It is not simply something one feels toward another person as some sort of vague desire or even relational attachment. It’s a willing. It’s an earnest desire to see the other prosper, to see that their needs are cared for. And it’s a willing strong enough to compel one to sacrifice oneself for the other.

To love is to act in the interest of the other, even at the expense of your own safety and freedom, even your life itself. This is what Harry’s mother does for him as a child. It is what Dumbledore does for Malfoy. It is what Harry does for his friends. Perhaps most remarkable of all, it is what Severus Snape does for Lilly every day after her death. This love, then, is a burden. It is a calling placed on a person directing them to give themselves up for the sake of the beloved.

Note that this does not mean renouncing power. Dumbledore remains the headmaster of the school. The school rules remain in force. There is order and structure, a form of life that students enter into but do not create themselves. Teachers are held to a baseline standard and some are not allowed to continue teaching at the school. Dumbledore acts regularly to protect Hogwarts from outside threats, whether those come from the Dark Lord Voldermort or from corrupt, vain government officials. There is a remarkable power that Dumbledore possesses throughout the books and he routinely uses it to protect, to resist evil, and to reward the good, which is precisely what Christianity says that just authority must do.

But it is not perfectionistic, nor is it cruel. And where it is coercive, it is coercive in very specific ways for very specific reasons. The institution of Hogwarts matters to Dumbledore, just as our nations, states, businesses, and all the rest should matter to us. But he recognizes, rightly, that the institution isn’t the point in itself. The institution is simply a vehicle for loving people effectively, helping them grow and mature into wise, virtuous men and women, which are the only sorts of men and women who can maintain such institutions.

This is what it ought to mean to baptize the strong gods. The forces that animate us, give us a sense of the transcendent, are not wrong in themselves. They are wrong when our love for them becomes greater than our love for God or drives us to act in ways that violate God’s call to love our neighbors. But these abuses do not negate the rightful use for nations or families or churches.

We don’t baptize Christian leaders so they can lord it over those beneath them, swaggering about, content in their power and prestige. Baptized Christians mimic their lord who, while never fully giving up his power, recognized that the power had a purpose. The failure of the sort of right wing Christians I describe above is that, to borrow a quote from Schaeffer, they think they can do the Lord’s work in the world’s way.

But a philosophy with no room for mercy cannot possibly be regarded as Christian. Rather, we do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way—which means that Christian businesspeople go about their work as Christians, politicians who are Christian are Christian politicians, artists who are Christian are Christian artists. And so their work will inherently be ordered toward the love of God and love of neighbor. To do anything less would be to betray their king. But precisely because their work is bound by the God who has saved them, it will be seasoned with mercy, patience, and kindness.

This, of course, leaves us at odds with the open society as well as being at odds with the new American right and the new American left. So be it. It is better to live with Christ in the wilderness than to enjoy the halls of power without him.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).