October 19, 2008


Why do nations exist? (Spengler, 7/29/08, Asia Times)

"Sovereignty" arose as an apology for papal absolutism, but it became flesh as the expression of the national will of the European nations in rebellion against Christian universalism.

[Jean Bethke] Elshtain tells the story of bad theology and its later manifestation in political thought that justifies the untrammeled power of the sovereign nation by reference to the capricious power of an absolutely transcendent God. Her antagonists include the medieval nominalists who preached God's unrestricted sovereignty, and their progeny in political philosophy: Jean Bodin, the 16th-century apologist for French absolutism; Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century theorist of the absolutist state; and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the inventor of the malignant idea of "national will".

Of these, Rousseau's influence upon 19th-century European nationalism was the most direct, and surely the most pernicious. Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy called him a precursor of Hitler. Elshtain highlights a side of Rousseau of which I was not aware:

There is an interesting wrinkle given our current preoccupations ... and that is Rousseau's encomiums on behalf of the "wise system of Mohammed" whose "very sound views" tied together religion and the political system, "completely uniting" it. So what Christianity weakens, Islam strengthens, and Rousseau supports this "wise system" by contrast to "Christian division".

Rousseau’s demand that every individual submit to the "general will" and become an "indivisible part of the whole" revives pagan integralism against Christianity. I reviewed this issue in a recent essay for First Things (October 2007)'

If we follow Augustine, however, the history of Europe's political failures is not only the history of misguided ideas, but of misplaced love. The nations of Europe rebelled against their foster-mother the Church, and abjured their loyalty to the People of God, that is, the common Christian congregation to which all the tribes of Europe were converted. They loved their own ethnicity better, and thus became peoples who are not peoples, in Augustine's uncanny phrase.

To make sense of this we need to peer deeper into Europe's character. On this account, Cristaudo's slim volume provides balance to Elshtain's account. Cristaudo develops the ideas of Eugene Rosenstock-Hussy (1888-1973), one of the last universal minds of high German culture. A converted Jew, Rosenstock-Hussy collaborated with his cousin Franz Rosenzweig, although their view of the world is quite different. Underneath the surface of European civilization, Rosenstock-Hussy perceives ancient undercurrents that erode the seemingly stable ground.

It is encouraging that Rosenstock-Hussy, who is nearly forgotten in his adoptive American home, remains in the curriculum at the University of Hong Kong. Although I reject many of his conclusions, the great German scholar is an inexhaustible mine of insights in several fields of inquiry. Cristaudo's present book is dense - it reads less like narrative than lecture notes - and saturates the reader with German cultural references that I find less distracting than Elsthain's folksy citation of rock-band lyrics. He has published creditable work on Franz Rosenzweig, and - full disclosure - cited this writer's study of Rosenzweig's analysis of Islam.

"There is something about our species," Cristaudo writes, "that cannot simply let the past be. Perhaps it is the resilience of whatever it is that has been divinised that haunts the solitude of the self." The struggle for Europe's soul lies between idolatry and divine love. Of the latter, Cristaudo's exemplars are the anti-Hitler conspirators Dietrich Bonhoffer and Helmut von Moltke. Between Nazism and these Christian martyrs there lay

the opposition between loves, between one who saw the sacrificial nature of love as divine, and who willingly went under for that, and those poor souls serving a phantastic beloved who could only deliver mass death, who could only promise a world worthy of life by killing ... the difference between divine love and idolatry.

Idolatry in the form of ethnic self-adoration never waned among the European peoples, despite their centuries of Christian tutelage. Was it coincidence that the political backing for Luther’s schism came from Saxony, seven centuries after Charlemagne killed the Saxons or converted them at sword-point? Christian universal empire broke up into the nation states whose sovereignty was affirmed at the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, dictated by France to the decimated German states.

Some aspects of Cristaudo's (and Rosenstock-Hussy's) theology disturb me. They ferret out the sources of evil in Europe's sad history, in the form of national idolatry and its undead gods. But Cristaudo seems to believe that the worst forms of evil fit into a grand plan of necessity. He writes, for example,

Evil teaches us what we must never repeat unless we want to reap the same consequences. Evil forces us to bond when we steadfastly refuse to take more benign paths of cooperation. It forces the love that we refused to give freely …for example, nothing has contributed more to expanding consciousness about the moral intolerableness of racism than the evils of Nazism. Only when humanity saw its evils did it seriously confront the link between its thoughtless everyday cruelties, envy and bigotries.

That sounds a bit like Voltaire's Dr Pangloss, who assured Candide that without all the unspeakable tortures he had suffered, he would not now be eating strawberries. In his broad and erudite vision of Western culture, Cristaudo wants to see an ultimate purpose for everything, even the ugliest consequences of evil choices. I cannot agree. It is dangerous to arrogate unto ourselves the capacity to detect the traces of Providence in history. We have faith that they are there, but we dare not sit in judgment of Providence without reducing God to an immanent principle of history, rather than the personal God of the Bible. Sometimes Mephistopheles is right: what arises well may be worthy of its own destruction, and to be past sometimes is as good as never having been at all.

The peoples of Europe failed, not only their political theorists. A new people had to come into existence with the founding of America before limited constitutional government could be created. Aquinas conceived of a Christian empire whose citizenship transcended ethnicity, continuing the original design of the Church fathers. The disintegration of this design required a fresh start, in the formation of the first non-ethnic nation in Western history, the United States.

Elsthain, like Novak and some other researchers, traces American constitutional government back to Aquinas' concept of natural law. The transmission of ideas from Aquinas to the American Founders is a tricky matter, which I will let the specialists debate. A simpler thought is that a people capable of governing itself was one in which Christianity had changed every individual, (in Augustine's words) "so that, as the individual just man, so also the community and people of the just, live by faith, which works by love, that love whereby man loves God as He ought to be loved, and his neighbor as himself". America selected its citizens out from among the nations to form a new people uniquely capable of self-government.

As much fun as it is to fret about Barack Obama's supposed socialism, the real danger in our politics in the moment is that his candidacy is a function of identity politics at a time the Right is truckling with nativism. Those, on the pagan Left and nationalist Right, who adhere to these Darwinistic atavisms, correctly perceive the universalist Christianity of folks like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin as a threat, which is why they hate these essentially decent people with such seeming disproportion. The "peoples who are not peoples" recognize that they are at war with the people who love God.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2008 8:48 PM
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