The Abrahamic Faiths and the Acid of Modernity

The Abrahamic Faiths and the Acid of Modernity December 20, 2019

Over the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of reading three fascinating books that touch on questions of faith and public life, from the perspective of very different theological traditions. Bari Weiss’s How to Fight Anti-Semitism chronicles the unsettling resurgence, on both the far left and far right, of virulently anti-Jewish views. Asma Uddin’s When Islam Is Not a Religion explains how Islamic belief, in the American political zeitgeist, is either stigmatized as a totalitarian political project or appropriated as a token of intersectionality. And R.R. Reno’s Return of the Strong Gods, taking a slightly more meta-level perspective, tells a broadly Catholic story about the tragedy of World War II and the Western turn against any philosophy reeking of “ideology.”

Despite the different traditions from which their authors hail, at the heart of all three books is a common understanding about the place of religious identity in an individual’s life. Weiss, Uddin, and Reno all grasp that faith commitments are central to personal identity in the most elemental ways—so central that other value commitments, when they conflict with religious duty, must yield. Those not truly steeped in a faith tradition of their own will necessarily have difficulty grasping its central influence in the committed believer’s life. (Failure to understand this leads to dull and superficial political analyses, like this particular disaster of a piece from Vox‘s Zack Beauchamp, that confuse correlation and causation.)

Notably, Weiss, Uddin, and Reno all grasp that it is possible to practice their faiths within the limitations of a pluralistic political regime. While it is certainly possible to conceive of a political system where religious convictions and political realities perfectly align—whether taking the form of an explicitly Jewish state like Israel, a state governed by Islamic sharia law, or a Catholic integralist or Reformed theonomist regime—the actualization of such a theo-political utopia is not a salvific imperative (that is, something without which salvation is impossible).

Nevertheless, the authors’ beliefs do not overlap perfectly with the norms of “polite society” in a liberal democracy. All three authors—more or less—recognize a certain disconnect between some of the beliefs they hold and the interpretations of those beliefs espoused by certain highly public figures who routinely invoke their same faiths. One might say, for instance, that Weiss, Uddin, and Reno have more in common with one another than each of them does, respectively, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Nancy Pelosi, and Ilhan Omar.

What grounds this divergence? Progressive religious traditions, broadly speaking, share an evolutionary, semi-Hegelian approach to theology that H. Richard Niebuhr called the “Christ of culture” mentality—a theological paradigm that understands divine purpose as fundamentally bound up with the outworking of democratic political processes. By contrast, the scandal of traditional—one might even say “conservative”—theological conviction is the assertion that there are certain moral and metaphysical principles that are fully insulated from democratic consensus.

The difference between these two theological models implicates how one thinks about the old Marxist slogan “the personal is political.” In the simplest sense, the slogan is unavoidably true: if the political life is intrinsically bound up with the moral life, as the classical theological-philosophical tradition has typically held, then personal conduct inevitably has “political” ramifications (how one lives, in short, always indirectly shapes one how relates to others). But what it cannot mean, for the orthodox believer, is that the most personal thing of all—religious conviction—is something up for grabs within the flux of the democratic/electoral process. And this, I think, is what those traditionalists who criticize the “politicization of everything” are really getting at—they’re affirming a belief that some things aren’t just worth voting for, but worth dying for.

Whether at the ballot box or the gulag, you will never persuade a practitioner of Orthodox Judaism that the Torah is not the revealed truth of God, convince a conservative Muslim that Muhammad was not actually a prophet, or talk a traditional Christian into declaring that Jesus did not rise from the dead. To the believer, it simply does not matter that these truth-claims are impervious to change in the face of social evolution or are inherently “exclusionary”—that is, if true, they entail that other faith traditions are flatly incorrect. What matters is whether the claims are true in themselves, not whether they promote the “democratic values” of liberty and equality. (Faiths might very well promote such principles incidentally, but they are not justified on that basis.)

And this is the kind of conviction that a certain type of politically-minded person finds intolerable, because such a priori convictions can never perfectly align with a regime that emerges out of democratic processes and that is changed by them. In a democratic system, the person of faith is always, in some sense, a citizen of two realms—rendering to Caesar (or vox populi) what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. That is the issue with which practitioners of the three Abrahamic faiths (as well as others) must now contend. Fortunately, Weiss, Uddin, and Reno all understand this at a deep level—and their new books provide a firm foundation for grappling with it.

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