Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Demon Phantasm of Historical Idealism

Maybe you are a person like this, maybe you know a person like this: There is some moment in the past, whether lived, reminisced, or learned, that contains a kind of fullness of time. There is a moment when all the right players, all the right ideas, all the right forms, all the right circumstances had come together to create something great. In that moment, there was a sense of completeness. It might not have been devoid of conflict, it might have contained some form of hardship, there might have been challenges afoot. Yet there was a grandeur in the perfection of an ideal that one holds near and dear.

This sounds horridly abstract, but it's quite common. This is the sort of narrative when Conservatives reflect on the 50's or the Reagan years. Typically it is for someone backwards looking, but even for self-identified liberals and progressives, there are moments where a dream was on track. People look at the 60's as a time of cultural change that was eventually derailed by reactionary induced fear and Red-hysteria.

And of course, both sides in the American spectrum look back to 1776 as a time where a monumental, earth-shattering change occurred. One side looks at an event where a God-ordained republican government was established upon common sense, free-trade, love of God, country, and family. One side looks at an event where free-thinking, and a sense of the individual, were able to overcome oppressive superstitions, outmoded forms of governance and economics, and look to the future. These are stereo-types of common positions, so forgive me the brevity. But they reflect a sense there was some moment where things were right.

This is the trap of a kind of historical idealism, that there was ever a moment that reflects the characteristics that we impute back on top of it. Sometimes it doesn't take too long for those looking back to inject a triumphalism upon a narrative. The prophetic is always something that looks forward, but it is surely a recipe for self-deception when we read back providence onto things that have already occurred.  Forward-looking is a kind of trial upon any idea, premonition, or prediction. But when backwards-looking, the narrative can become whatever we want of it. It is putty in our hands.

Nationally, this is essentially what runs the narratives between what are commonly called "Left" and "Right". America may be mostly hostile towards history, but it doesn't mean Americans don't enjoy history. Rather, it's that the more away from actual history that history becomes, the more it becomes cartoonish. I wouldn't be surprised if there are people out there that think Reagan actually destroyed the Berlin Wall. But it is reaching that level. It is quite fascinating how Trump has channeled the spirit of Reagan in his campaign slogan "Make America Great Again". It's in the same light how Reagan turned a Puritan "City on a Hill" snippet into a slogan campaign for an American Destiny.

But this sort of demon rears its head in some high-minded spaces. Ecclesially, there is a popular trend towards reforming a kind of Christendom in America. This kind of thing found itself in movements like the Moral Majority or Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Now a days, this kind of thinking has been dealt some serious losses and harsh blows. It now appears in Rod Dreher's appeal to a "Benedict Option", that is to separate and protect notions of the West as "Civilization" rots away. Well, maybe more poignantly put: civilization is lost as the barbarous gays, muslims, multiculturalists, liberal socialists, moral libertines etc. have ransacked Rome and sit upon its throne and run its hallowed institutions. Obergefell is the new Odoacer.

Of course, not everyone is going to agree with Dreher, and time will tell whether his influence will remain or there will be a conservative resurgence. Clearly, theonomist reconstructionists have already sought out this strategy, laying await in small agragrian farmsteads, raising an army of children, seeking to reclaim and reconquer a lost birth-right in a neo-Confederate sort of way.

But what all these movements reveal is a kind of claim on history. Now most in these movements will point to some golden years of America. There are, of course, in the thickets of these movements the intellectuals who call into question the whole American project in the first place. Their hearts are in some Medieval model where prince and pope were the body and soul of the society. These are both the most intellectually astute members of these groups and yet the most delusional. There is some weird, historically idealized sense that if we can just reverse some idea or some thought that somehow peace could come about. For them, this neo-Benedict Option represents a kind of chiliasm, a collapse of the modern West opens the door for a complete restructuring.

In a sense, these people are the most harmless and yet the most dangerous. If such a collapse ever happened, these would be the theologians and philosophers on horseback behind whatever generalissimo or conqueror would exert his will over the chaos. But until then, they are cranks and discontents, dreaming of a world that never was.

I must admit that this mode of thinking is very intoxicating. I have fallen for it, and the temptation will always remain. The lure of Roman Catholicism exists in the same way: join the changeless institution that can survive the batterings. Except that this is itself an illusion. Unless one wants to admit that the Magisterium can rewrite history and its own role in it (and it attempts this with some vigor), then the only thing that remain is institutional form. But there is theological rational for why this alone is compelling. I have felt this lure, I have entertained it, I have suffered over it. It is a false comfort.

History remains different than historical idealism. History attempts to make sense out of what was on terms that shed the most light. History is a discipline and practice to represent and reflect reality. It is complex and, to our vision, messy and confused.

This is not to say that history is useless, rather, it is a discipline to be engaged in. Reviewing the past is an aid to not only understanding the present, but to situate yourself in the present. Your problems are not their problems, and their answers are not your answers. History is not a deposit to merely mine for convenient solutions. History is not a seed-bed of truths to be merely reconstructed in a fit of power. If Fouccault did anything blessed, it was revealing the sheer ugliness of these things. Genealogies show how often our father can be the Devil.

As these ecclesiastic high-minds reveal, the most erudite of their language devolves down to support for psuedo-fascists like Ted Cruz, "pro-life" lobbies*, and Conservative platform issues. They live conventional lives and merely feed upon psychic anxiety and pressure. Their writings only preach to the choir. They make cottage industries out of hackneyed ideas and concepts.

Yet, the Spirit of God, the Lord of spirits, remains present as He has when He descended on Pentecost. He frustrates the building of every Babel. He will dispel every historical phantasm, even as some cling to them as they are banished into the Abyss.

O Lord, come and grant us clear eyes.

*I am not for abortion, but many pro-life advocates are ignorantly inconsistent. For many, issues of life only revolve around conception and birth. The politics of this become a way to feel self-righteous and 'political', without actually being righteous and alive in the fullest sense of the word.

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