Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

08 July 2004

Why I am not a premodern

I have recently come across another review of my book written by one Calvin Townsend and published in the spring issue of The Review of Politics. It is titled "Idols of Modernity," and for some bizarre reason it has been posted on a website styling itself as "The Information Source for the Home Building Industry." Although I do not know Townsend personally, I understand that he teaches political studies part-time at Trinity Western University and appears to be a Straussian of some sort, judging from his critique of my approach. For Townsend it seems I am too modern, caught up in "'routinized' versions of neo-Thomist and neo-Calvinist illusions." The reviewer continues:

The irony of the book, in this reviewer's judgment, is that the author could have found much better support for his critique in a return to premodern Christian political thought and the tradition of Christian natural law which for centuries was the cornerstone of western ethical and political thought. I agree with Leo Strauss that a return to the wisest of the ancient thinkers could be a source of liberation from the tyranny of modern ideologies.

Reading this critique has reminded me that, whatever my affinity for the likes of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Johannes Althusius, I am not a premodern. To be sure, I was delighted when the O'Donovans published From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, containing a variety of classic, premodern political philosophy texts. I strongly believe that we ignore the wisdom of our forebears to our peril; indeed we have much to learn from them. I heartily dislike the sort of cultural amnesia which assumes that enlightenment commenced the day before yesterday and everything preceding it is a product of unreasoned prejudice and superstition.

At the same time, the notion that we can simply return to premodern ways is a nonstarter for at least two reasons. To begin with, since premodernity comes in both christian and classical pagan versions, it is by no means obvious that there is a single phenomenon called premodernity. As a Christian himself, Townsend would evidently have us recover the christian elements. Yet his appeal to Leo Strauss, who definitely followed the classical Greeks and Romans and was deeply suspicious of attempts to ground political philosophy in divine revelation, would take us in a different direction.

In the second place, I believe it is necessary to distinguish between what might be called spiritual and structural components of modernity. The former category would include the likes of the social contract, with its assumption that all communities and the obligations thereto can be reduced to voluntary associations; the idolatrous esteem for human autonomy and the concomitant denigration of all heteronomous authority; the belief that human beings are capable of saving themselves; and the deprecation of creation as a source of evil. This spirit of modernity we must definitively reject.

The latter category would include the rise of political democracy; the post-westphalian consolidation of national states; technical advances in the fields of communications, transportation and economics; and the softening (but not the elimination) of gender roles. These structural components we can cautiously affirm as products of legitimate cultural development, even if such development has occurred under the misguided influence of a secular worldview.

I have recently read Meic Pearse's Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. He writes of the deepening chasm that has opened between the west and all other societies, which remain premodern in their underlying assumptions. At some point I hope to write a review of this book, possibly in tandem with Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, so I will not say too much about it now. However, after undertaking a devastating analysis of the sorry plight of a decadent west so certain of its own evident superiority, Pearse concludes that it is time for the west to rejoin the rest and put aside its promethean ways. He is especially damning of the sexual revolution and the havoc it has wreaked on those societies least able to afford its excesses. So far so good.

But then I go back to Robert Putnam, whose Making Democracy Work compares the "premodern" south of Italy with the ultramodern north, with the latter coming off much more favourably than the former. Putnam's study indicates the presence of a vibrant civil society functioning in the north, based on higher levels of interpersonal trust and co-operation than in the south. Ought we to regret the smoothly functioning political institutions, revolving credit associations, amateur football clubs, the relative lack of corruption, and other manifestations of a highly differentiated society? I don't think so.

In the same way, although I can easily resonate with an intentionally premodern political theorist such as Robert Kraynak, whose Christian Faith and Modern Democracy is delightfully contrarian and offers a worthwhile dissenting perspective, I cannot ultimately follow his prudential judgement that the best constitution at present would be a pre-democratic constitutional monarchy. (That said, I quite agree with him that the classical mixed constitution is superior to unadulterated democracy.)

The old cliché has it that we cannot turn back the clock. Too often this is an excuse to do nothing about a particularly odious development commonly, albeit erroneously, thought to be progressive. Yet a number of biblical scholars and commentators have noted that while paradise began with a garden, redeemed humanity will live in a glittering city. As my esteemed colleague, Al Wolters, puts it, redemption in Jesus Christ means the restoration of creation, not its repristination. We should not wish to repeal millennia of cultural development, even if it has occurred under the influence of pagan and secular worldviews. This is why I believe neo-Calvinism represents such a significant advance in our understanding of God's world. We cannot simply be content to drag our feet in conservatistic fashion. We cannot return to the old ways -- at least not all of them. God's world is an intrinsically dynamic world; creation order includes within its very structure the possibilities of further development, under the obedient guidance of his image-bearers.

So I happily accept Townsend's critique. Guilty as charged: I am not a premodern.

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1 Comments:

  • quite so. We shouldn't disregard the wisdom of the ancients, nor that of the moderns.

    and, turning to Scripture, note that Pentecost did not undo Babel by restoring one tongue - it surmounted it

    By Blogger Felix, at 4:00 AM  

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