Friday, November 23, 2007

Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark

In the second section-or "fit"-of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, the Bellman lectures the crew of his ship on the peculiar traits of the creature they have just crossed an ocean to find. There are, he tells his men, "five unmistakable marks" by which genuine Snarks may be known. First is the taste, "meagre and hollow, but crisp: / Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist, / With a flavour of Will-o-the wisp." Second is the Snark’s "habit of getting up late," which is so pronounced that it frequently breakfasts at tea time and "dines on the following day." Third is "its slowness in taking a jest," evident in its sighs of distress when a joke is ventured and in the grave expression it assumes on hearing a pun. Fourth is its "fondness for bathing-machines," which it thinks improve the scenery, and fifth is ambition.

Then, having enumerated the beast’s most significant general traits, the Bellman proceeds to dilate on its special variants:

It next will be right
To describe each particular batch:
Distinguishing those that have feathers, and bite,
From those that have whiskers, and scratch.

He never completes his taxonomy, however. He begins to explain that, while most Snarks are quite harmless, some unfortunately are Boojums, but he is almost immediately forced to stop because, at the sound of that word, the Baker has fainted away in terror.

The entire passage is a splendid specimen of Carroll’s nonpareil gift for capturing the voice of authority-or, rather, the authoritative tone of voice, which is, as often as not, entirely unrelated to any actual authority on the speaker’s part-in all its special cadences, inflections, and modulations. And what makes these particular verses so delightful is the way in which they mimic a certain style of exhaustive empirical exactitude while producing a conceptual result of utter vacuity.

Perhaps that is what makes them seem so exquisitely germane to Daniel Dennett’s most recent book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. This, I hasten to add, is neither a frivolous nor a malicious remark. The Bellman-like almost all of Carroll’s characters-is a rigorously, even remorselessly rational person and is moreover a figure cast in a decidedly heroic mould. But, if one sets out in pursuit of beasts as fantastic, elusive, and protean as either Snarks or religion, one can proceed from only the vaguest idea of what one is looking for. So it is no great wonder that, in the special precision with which they define their respective quarries, in the quantity of farraginous detail they amass, in their insensibility to the incoherence of the portraits they have produced-in fact, in all things but felicity of expression-the Bellman and Dennett sound much alike.

Dennett, of course, is a widely known professor of philosophy at Tufts University, a codirector of the Center for Cognitive Studies, also at Tufts, and a self-avowed "Darwinian fundamentalist." That is to say, he is not merely a Darwinian; rather, he is a dogmatic materialist who believes that Darwin’s and Wallace’s discovery of natural selection provides us with a complete narrative of the origin and essence of all reality: physical, biological, psychological, and cultural. And in Breaking the Spell, Dennett sets out to offer an evolutionary account of human religion, to propose further scientific investigations of religion to be undertaken by competent researchers, and to suggest what forms of public policy we might wish, as a society, to adopt in regard to religion, once we have begun to acquire a proper understanding of its nature. It is, in short, David Hume’s old project of a natural history of religion, embellished with haphazard lashings of modern evolutionary theory and embittered with draughts of dreary authoritarianism.

I confess that I have never been an admirer of Dennett’s work. I have thought all his large books-especially one entitled Consciousness Explained-poorly reasoned and infuriatingly inadequate in their approaches to the questions they address. Too often he shows a preference for the cumulative argument over the cogent and for repetition over demonstration. The Bellman’s maxim, "What I tell you three times is true," is not alien to Dennett’s method. He seems to work on the supposition that an assertion made with sufficient force and frequency is soon transformed, by some subtle alchemy, into a settled principle. And there are rather too many instances when Dennett seems either clumsily to miss or willfully to ignore pertinent objections to his views and so races past them with a perfunctory wave in what he takes to be their general direction-though usually in another direction altogether. Consider, for example, this dialectical gem, plucked from his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: "Perhaps the most misguided criticism of gene centrism is the frequently heard claim that genes simply cannot have interests. This . . . is flatly mistaken. . . . If a body politic, or General Motors, can have interests, so can genes." At moments like this, one feels that something has been overlooked.

Generally speaking, Dennett’s method in all his books is too often reminiscent of the forensic technique employed by the Snark, in the Barrister’s dream, to defend a pig charged with abandoning its sty: The Snark admits the desertion but then immediately claims this as proof of the pig’s alibi (for the creature was obviously absent from the scene of the crime at the time of its commission). And past experience perhaps caused me to approach his most recent book with rather low expectations. Even so, I was entirely unprepared for how bad an argument his latest book advances-so bad, in fact, that the truly fascinating question it raises is how so many otherwise intelligent persons could have mistaken it for a coherent or serious philosophical proposition.

The catalogue of complaints that might be brought against Breaking the Spell is large, though no doubt many of them are trivial. The most irksome of the book’s defects are Dennett’s gratingly precious rhetorical tactics, such as his inept and transparent attempt, on the book’s first page, to make his American readers feel like credulous provincials for not having adopted the European’s lofty disdain for religion. Or his use of the term brights to designate atheists and secularists of his stripe (which reminds one of nothing so much as the sort of names packs of popular teenage girls dream up for themselves in high school, but which also-in its favor-is so resplendently asinine a habit of speech that it has the enchanting effect of suggesting precisely the opposite of what Dennett intends).

There are also the embarrassing moments of self-delusion, as when Dennett, the merry "Darwinian fundamentalist," claims that atheists-unlike persons of faith-welcome the ceaseless objective examination of their convictions, or that philosophers are as a rule open to all ideas (which accords with no sane person’s experience of either class of individuals). And then there is his silly tendency to feign mental decrepitude when it serves his purposes, as when he pretends that the concept of God possesses too many variations for him to keep track of, or as when he acts scandalized by the revelation that academic theology sometimes lapses into a technical jargon full of obscure Greek terms like apophatic and ontic. And there are the historical errors, such as his ludicrous assertion that the early Christians regarded apostasy as a capital offense.

The prose is rebarbative, moreover, and the book is unpleasantly shapeless: It labors to begin and then tediously meanders to an inconclusive conclusion. There is, as well, the utter tone-deafness evident in Dennett’s attempts to describe how persons of faith speak or think, or what they have been taught, or how they react to challenges to their convictions. He even invents an antagonist for himself whom he christens Professor Faith, a sort of ventriloquist’s doll that he compels to utter the sort of insipid bromides he imagines typical of the believer’s native idiom.

In fact, Dennett expends a surprising amount of energy debating, cajoling, insulting, quoting, and taking umbrage at nonexistent persons. In the book’s insufferably prolonged overture, he repeatedly tells his imaginary religious readers-in a tenderly hectoring tone, as if talking to small children or idiots-that they will probably not read his book to the end, that they may well think it immoral even to consider doing so, and that they are not courageous enough to entertain the doubts it will induce in them. Actually, there is nothing in the book that could possibly shake anyone’s faith, and the only thing likely to dissuade religious readers from finishing it is its author’s interminable proleptic effort to overcome their reluctance. But Dennett is convinced he is dealing with intransigent oafs, and his frustration at their inexplicably unbroken silence occasionally erupts into fury. "I for one am not in awe of your faith," he fulminates at one juncture. "I am appalled by your arrogance, by your unreasonable certainty that you have all the answers." And this demented apostrophe occurs on the fifty-first page of the book, at which point Dennett still has not commenced his argument in earnest.

These are all minor annoyances, really. The far profounder problem with Breaking the Spell is that, ultimately, it is a sublimely pointless book, for two quite uncomplicated reasons. First, it proposes a "science of religion" that is not a science at all, except in the most generously imprecise sense of the word. Second, even if Dennett’s theory of the phylogeny of religion could be shown to be largely correct, not only would it fail to challenge belief, it would in fact merely confirm an established tenet of Christian theology and a view of "religion" already held by most developed traditions of faith.

The principal weakness of Dennett’s argument stems from his unfortunate reliance on certain metaphors, most particularly that of parasitism. Dennett most definitely does not wish to argue-as perhaps other, more functionalist evolutionary theorists of religion are wont to do-that the intellectual and social artifacts of human culture have evolved solely because of the benefits they confer on us or the contribution they make to our survival. Though he believes that those natural faculties that render us accidentally susceptible to religious belief have certainly been bred into us on account of the evolutionary advantages they bestow, religion in its developed form, he thinks, is something more on the order of a parasite whose only interest is its own propagation, even if that should involve the destruction of its host. This is the heart of his case, since he wants at all costs to avoid giving the impression that religion is in any sense-even evolutionarily-good for us. And to achieve his end, he finds it necessary not only to employ but also to treat almost as an established scientific fact the infinitely elastic and largely worthless concept of memes.

Memes, for those unfamiliar with them, were invented thirty years ago in an immensely popular book, The Selfish Gene, by Dennett’s fellow Darwinian fundamentalist, the zoologist and fanatical atheist tractarian Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene is not, I think it fair to say, an altogether logically consistent book, at least as regards human beings. Dawkins seems to argue simultaneously for and against a purely deterministic account of human behavior, and whether the introduction of the notion of memes alleviates or aggravates this ambiguity remains debatable, to say the least.

Whatever the case, for the purpose of understanding Dennett’s argument, it is enough to know that memes are culturally transmitted ideas, habits, behaviors, motifs, styles, themes, turns of phrase, structures, tunes, fashions, patterns, and in fact just about any other items or aspects of our shared social world, all of which, like genes, selfishly seek to persist and replicate themselves. That is to say, to take the obvious example, if most human beings believe in God, this has nothing to do with any sort of rational interpretation on their parts of their experience of reality. Nor is it even simply the influence of traditions that illuminate or confine their reasoning. Rather, the meme for God has implanted itself in their minds and has replicated itself through adaptation while successfully eliminating any number of rival memetic codes. We may like to think we believe because we have been convinced or awakened by-or that we have chosen or discovered-certain ideas or realities, but in fact our concepts and convictions are largely the phylogenic residue of a host of preconscious, invisible, immaterial agencies that have made our languages, cultures, and thoughts the vehicles by which they disseminate and perpetuate themselves.

This is, needless to say, a theory of absolutely preposterous pliancy, and few philosophers apart from Dennett have shown any enthusiasm for it. Of course, human beings most definitely are shaped to some degree by received ideas and habits, and copy patterns of behavior, craft, and thought from one another, and alter and refine these patterns in so doing. But, since human beings are also possessed of reflective consciousness and deliberative will, memory and intention, curiosity and desire, talk of memes is an empty mystification, and the word’s phonetic resemblance to genes is not quite enough to render it respectable. The idea of memes might provide Dennett a convenient excuse for not addressing the actual content of religious beliefs and for concentrating his attention instead on the phenomenon of religion as a cultural and linguistic type, but any ostensible science basing itself on memetic theory is a science based on a metaphor-or, really, on an assonance. Dennett, though, is as indefatigable as the Bellman in his pursuit of that ghostly echo. He is desperate to confine his thinking to a strictly Darwinian model of human behavior but just as desperate to portray religion as a kind of "cultural symbiont" that is more destructive than beneficial to the poor unsuspecting organisms it has colonized. And so memes, for want of more plausible parasites, are indispensable to his tale.

Dennett’s actual narrative of the genesis of religion is the most diverting part of his book, if only because it is so winsomely quasi una fantasia. He begins by considering the evolutionary advantages of the "intentional stance"-the ability to recognize or presume agency in one’s surroundings-and the special advantages of language. From these he deduces the origins of primitive animism and the development of the earliest religious memes (such as the personification of natural forces).

From there he attempts to imagine how these vague apprehensions of the supernatural mutated-by associating themselves with the tendency of children to exaggerate the powers of their parents-into the idea of omniscient and omnipotent ancestor gods and how this idea was subsequently fortified by the invention of divination. He hypothesizes that those early humans who were most susceptible to hypnotic suggestion and the "placebo effect" were better able to survive severe illnesses because the ministrations of shamans would be more likely to take effect with them, and it is perhaps this mesmeric gene that is responsible for that part of our brain that is especially hospitable to the God meme.

Dennett also ponders the development of those rituals by which religious memes scaffold themselves in more-enduring social structures, and he reflects on the phenomena of mass hypnosis and mass hysteria, which help to explain how the contagion of religion spreads and sustains itself. He considers the transformation of folk religion into organized religion, especially as agriculture and urban society developed, as well as the kleptocratic alliances struck between organized religion and political power. Along the way, he contemplates how religions deepen their complexity and mystery, and how believers begin to take responsibilities for the memes that shape them, by producing ever more sophisticated rationales for their beliefs and forming allegiances to those rationales. And he describes the way in which "belief in belief"-a desire to believe, or a sense that belief is good, rather than actual conviction-becomes one of the most effective techniques for religious memes to render themselves immune to the antibodies of doubt.

Near the end of these reflections, Dennett feels confident enough to assert that he has just successfully led his readers on a "nonmiraculous and matter-of-fact stroll" from the blind machinery of nature up to humanity’s passionate fidelity to its most exalted ideas. He has not, obviously. His story is a matter not of facts but of conjectures and intuitions, strung together on tenuous strands of memetic theory. Still, it is as good a story as any.

Unfortunately, all evolutionary stories about culture suffer from certain inherent problems. Evolutionary biology is a science that investigates chains of physical causation and the development of organic life, and these are all it can investigate with any certainty. The moment its principles are extended into areas to which they are not properly applicable, it begins to cross the line from the scientific to the speculative. This is fine, perhaps, so long as one is conscious from the first that one is proceeding in stochastic fashion and by analogy, and that one’s conclusions will always be unable to command anyone’s assent. When, though, those principles are translated into a universal account of things that are not in any definable way biological or physically causal, they have been absorbed into a kind of impressionistic mythology, or perhaps into a kind of metaphysics, one whose guiding premises are entirely unverifiable.

In fact, the presupposition that all social phenomena must have an evolutionary basis and that it is legitimate to attempt to explain every phenomenon solely in terms of the benefit it may confer (the "cui bono? question," as Dennett likes to say) is of only suppositious validity. Immensely complex cultural realities like art, religion, and morality have no genomic sequences to unfold, exhibit no concatenations of material causes and effects, and offer nothing for the scrupulous researcher to quantify or dissect.

An evolutionary sociologist, for instance, might try to isolate certain benefits that religions bring to societies or individuals (which already involves attempting to define social behaviors that could be interpreted in an almost limitless variety of ways), so as then to designate those benefits as the evolutionary rationales behind religion. But there is no warrant for doing so. The social and personal effects of religion, even if they could be proved to be uniform from society to society or person to person, may simply be accidental or epiphenomenal to religion. And even if one could actually discover some sort of clear connection between religious adherence and, say, social cohesion or personal happiness, one still would have no reason to assume the causal priority of those benefits; to do so would be to commit one of the most elementary of logical errors: post hoc ergo propter hoc- "thereafter, hence therefore" (or really, in this case, an even more embarrassing error: post hoc ergo causa huius-"thereafter, hence the cause thereof"). In the end, the most scientists of religion can do is to use biological metaphors to support (or, really, to illustrate) an essentially unfounded philosophical materialism. When they do this, however, they are not investigating or explaining anything. They are merely describing a personal vision and will never arrive anywhere but where they began-rather like the Butcher in The Hunting of the Snark, with his mathematical demonstration to the Beaver that two added to one equals three (which starts with three as its subject and yields three as its result, but only because it is so constructed as always to yield a result equivalent to its subject). Dennett’s nonfunctionalist story of religion’s development is no exception to this. He may wish to argue that the principal beneficiaries of religion are not men but memes, but he still assumes that, to understand the essential nature of a thing, it is enough to know who benefits from it-cui bono?-which is, of course, the very thing he should be trying to prove.

In fact, in Dennett’s case, it becomes especially difficult to distinguish conclusions from premises. After all, he wishes to argue, first, that the most rudimentary religious impulses sprang from purely natural causes, which originally involved useful evolutionary adaptations, and, second, that most subsequent developments of religion have come about not because they make any useful contributions to the species but because certain memes have spun off into self-replicating patterns of their own and metastasized into vast self-sustaining structures without much practical purpose beyond themselves. Sadly, these claims render one another useless as explanatory instruments for evaluating the evidence Dennett would like to see collected. Wherever his primary premise proves inadequate as a predictive model for explaining the phenomenon of religion, he need only shift to his secondary premise-from genes to memes, so to speak-which means he has effectively insulated his results against the risk of falsification. If one proceeds in that fashion, all one can ever really prove is that, with theories that are sufficiently vacuous, one can account for everything (which is to say, for nothing).

This, though, may be the least of Dennett’s problems. Questions of method, important as they are, need not be raised at all until the researcher can first determine and circumscribe the object of his studies in a convincing way. And here it seems worth mentioning-just for precision’s sake-that religion does not actually exist. Rather there are a great number of traditions of belief and practice that, for the sake of convenience, we call religions but that could scarcely differ from one another more. It might seem sufficient, for the purposes of research, simply to identify general resemblances among these traditions, but even that is notoriously hard to do, since the effort to ascertain what sort of things one is looking at involves an enormous amount of interpretation and no clear criteria for evaluating any of it. One cannot establish where the boundaries lie between religious systems and magic, or folk science, or myth, or social ceremony.

There is not even any compelling reason to assume a genetic continuity or kinship between, say, shamanistic beliefs and developed rituals of sacrifice, or between tribal cults and traditions like Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, or to assume that these various developed traditions are varieties of the same thing. One may feel that there is a continuity or kinship, or presuppose on the basis of one’s prejudices, inklings, or tastes that the extremely variable and imprecise characteristic of a belief in the supernatural constitutes proof of a common ancestry or type. But all this remains a matter of interpretation, vague morphologies, and personal judgments of value and meaning, and attempting to construct a science around such intuitions amounts to little more than mistaking "all the things I don’t believe in" for a scientific genus. One cannot even demonstrate that apparent similarities of behavior between cultures manifest similar rationales, as human consciousness is so promiscuously volatile a catalyst in social evolution.

Moreover, the task of delineating the phenomenon of religion in the abstract becomes perfectly hopeless as soon as one begins to examine what particular traditions of faith actually claim, believe, or do. It is already difficult enough to define what sort of thing religion is. But what sort of thing is the Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths? What sort of thing is the Vedantic doctrine that Atman and Brahman are one? What sort of thing is the Christian belief in Easter? What is the core and what are the borders of these phenomena? What are their empirical causes? What are their rationales? Grand, empty abstractions about religion are as easy to produce as to ignore. These, by contrast, are questions that touch on what persons actually believe, and to answer them requires an endless hermeneutical labor-an investigation of history, and intellectual traditions, and contemplative lore, and so on and so forth-which ultimately requires a degree of specialization that few can hope to achieve; even then, the specialist’s conclusions must always remain open to doubt and revision.

Dennett, incidentally, is conscious of this "herme-neutical objection," but he truculently dismisses it as an expression of territorial anxiety on the part of scholars in the humanities who fear the invasion of their disciplines by little gray men in lab coats. His only actual reply to the objection, in fact, is simply to assert yet more stridently that human culture’s "webs of significance" (in Clifford Geertz’s phrase) "can be analyzed by methods that critically involve experiments and the disciplined methods of the natural sciences."

Well, if Dennett is going to resort to italics (that most devastatingly persuasive weapon in the dialectician’s arsenal), I can do little more than shamelessly lift a page from his rhetorical portfolio and reply: No, they cannot. This is not a matter of territoriality or of resistance to the most recent research but of simple logic. There can be no science of any hard empirical variety when the very act of identifying one’s object of study is already an act of interpretation, contingent on a collection of purely arbitrary reductions, dubious categorizations, and biased observations. There can be no meaningful application of experimental method. There can be no correlation established between biological and cultural data. It will always be impossible to verify either one’s evidence or one’s conclusions-indeed, impossible even to determine what the conditions of verification should be.

At one point in his argument, Dennett discusses cargo cults, those fascinating and troubling religions invented by Pacific islanders in response to their first encounters with visitors from the technologically advanced West. During the Second World War, for example, the construction of an American air base on the island of Efate and the subsequent arrival there of riches from the heavens understandably aroused the envy of the people of the island of Tana. So the latter built their own air base from bamboo, complete with warehouses, landing strips, and aeronautical icons, and devised religious rituals incorporating elements of American military pageantry, in the expectation that the same gods who had blessed their neighbors with such abundant cargo could be persuaded to visit Tana as well.

Dennett wants his readers to see these cults as specimens of religion as such, their evolution conveniently accelerated (almost as if in a laboratory) and so unobscured by any of the imposing venerability or mysterious antiquity of more established traditions. Obviously, though, these cults are far too anomalous, and local, and bound to a special set of conditions to tell us much about religion in general. And obviously, also, they are variations within traditions of cultic practice already long established in those islands and so pose the same hermeneutical problems as any other set of religious practices.

But, while they may not teach us much about religion in the abstract, they may help to explain the kind of thinking animating Breaking the Spell-for, in a sense, Dennett is himself a cargo cultist. When, for instance, he proposes statistical analyses of different kinds of religion, to find out which are more evolutionarily perdurable, he exhibits a trust in the power of unprejudiced science to demarcate and define items of thought and culture like species of flora that verges on magical thinking. It is as if he imagines that by imitating the outward forms of scientific method, and by applying an assortment of superficially empirical theories to nonempirical realities, and by tirelessly gathering information, and by asserting the validity of his methods with an incantatory repetitiveness, and by invoking invisible agencies such as memes, and by fiercely believing in the efficacy of all that he is doing, he can summon forth actual hard clinical results, as from the treasure houses of the gods.

Perhaps, though, all of this is inevitable. When one does not really know what one is looking for, the proper method to adopt is probably just to look busy. As the Bellman says to his men, "Do all that you know, and try all that you don’t."

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

At the end of the day, it is the quarry that determines the manner of the hunt.

By the same token, perhaps it is inevitable that Dennett should defer the corroboration of his arguments to future research, as he constantly does. It is difficult to judge, moreover, whether this is simply a rhetorical ploy on his part or the vaguely messianic delusion it occasionally appears to be. At the end of Breaking the Spell, he provides a list of some of the "unanswered empirical questions" raised in its pages, as recommendations for future research. But they are almost all questions that are, quite clearly, unanswerable-or, rather, answerable in innumerable, imprecise, and contradictory ways-and Dennett seems unaware of this. His book abounds in such sentences as this: "We don’t have to settle the empirical question now of whether divination memes are mutualist memes and actually enhance the fitness of their hosts, or parasite memes that they’d be better off without. Eventually, it would be good to get an evidence-based answer to this question, but for the time being it is the questions I am interested in." And he appears earnestly to believe that there truly is some question here-or some means of resolving it-that is in some intelligible sense empirical. This is worse than quixotic. A century hence, our knowledge of physics will have no doubt advanced far beyond what we can now conceive, but our knowledge of issues such as these (and of memes especially) will have advanced not a step, except perhaps in the direction of ever more inventive conjectures.

In the end, though, I am uncertain that Dennett actually believes much of what he is saying. In all likelihood, he harbors no more than a sort of wistful "belief in belief" with regard to it. I doubt it matters much to him whether future research on religious memes is a concrete possibility or not. I doubt even that he is really interested in the questions he raises, except insofar as they might induce salubrious doubts in his readers by appearing more probative than they are. Breaking the Spell is a thoroughly tendentious book and in a rather vicious way, for Dennett’s ultimate aim is to propose certain social policies of a distinctly dictatorial sort. For instance, he sympathetically cites the view of Richard Dawkins and others that religious indoctrination of children should be considered a form of child abuse, and he suggests that we might need to consider what measures our society should take to protect children from their parents’ superstitions. He also pompously proclaims that we cannot as a society tolerate certain Catholic or Mormon teachings.

This, no doubt, partially explains his devotion to the concept of memes, for it gives him license to indulge a small taste for the totalitarian without any undue stress on his conscience. If, after all, the only beneficiaries of memes are memes themselves, and if religious memes are an especially toxic strain, then surely it is nothing but prudence and benevolence to seek the extermination of these parasites, ideally by preventive measures. And it hardly matters that the argument by which Dennett reaches his conclusions is patently absurd. He can assume the credulity of a compliant journalistic class and the tacit collaboration of his ideological allies, and he is convinced of the stupidity of his religious readers. His book’s digressions and longueurs, its coarse jargon and fraudulent tone of authority, and its parodies of logic and science are all part of an immense and ponderous obfuscation, behind which is concealed a thoroughly authoritarian agenda. And behind that is concealed only ignorance and apprehension.

Dennett, needless to say, has no curiosity regarding any actual faith or its intellectual tradition. His few references to Christian history make it clear that his historical consciousness is little more than a compilation of threadbare eighteenth- and nineteenth-century caricatures. In the six spacious pages he devotes to the question of whether there is any reason to believe in God (or, really, devotes mostly to quoting himself at length on why the question is not worth considering), he does not address any of the reasons for which persons actually do believe but merely recites a few of the arguments that freshmen are given in introductory courses on the philosophy of religion. Even then, his mental sloth is so enormous that he raises only those counterarguments that all competent scholars of philosophical history know to be the ones that do not work.

The world of faith is all a terra incognita to Dennett; the only map he knows of it is, like the map used by the Bellman, a "perfect and absolute blank!"-though, in Dennett’s case, bearing a warning that "Here there be dragons." Or, perhaps, "Here there be Boojums":

beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!

All Dennett knows is that something he dreads haunts the world, something intolerant and violent and irrational, and he wants to conjure it away. This, of course, raises the now quite hoary-headed question of how, in the wake of the twentieth century, the committed secularist dare wax either sanctimonious toward faith or sanguine toward secular reason, but Dennett is not one to pause before doubts of that sort. He is certain there is some single immense thing out there called religion, and that by its very nature it endangers us all and ought as a whole to be abolished. This being so, it is probably less important to him that his argument be good than that, for purely persuasive purposes, it appear to be grounded in irrefutable science-which it can never be.

All of this probably matters little, because-again-the most crucial defect of Breaking the Spell is its ultimate pointlessness. Let us assume there is far greater substance to Dennett’s argument than I grant. Very well. Dennett need not have made such an effort to argue his point in the first place. Of course religion is a natural phenomenon. Who would be so foolish as to deny that? Religion is ubiquitous in human culture and obviously constitutes an essential element in the evolution of society, and obviously has itself evolved. It is as natural to humanity as language or song or mating rituals. Dennett may imagine that such a suggestion is provocative and novel, and he may believe that there are legions of sincere souls out there desperately committed to the notion that religion itself is some sort of miraculous exception to the rule of nature, but, in either case, he is deceived.

For one thing, it does not logically follow that, simply because religion as such is a natural phenomenon, it cannot become the vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented toward a transcendent reality. To imagine that it does so follow is to fall prey to a version of the genetic fallacy, the belief that one need only determine the causal sequence by which something comes into being in order to understand its nature, meaning, content, uses, or value. For another thing, no one believes in religion. Christians, for instance, believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead and is now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, present to his Church as its Lord. This claim is at once historical and spiritual, and has given rise to an immense diversity of natural expressions: moral, artistic, philosophical, social, legal, and (of course) religious. Regarding "religion" as such, though, it is in keeping with theological tradition to see it as something common to all societies, many of whose manifestations are violent, idiotic, despotic, superstitious, amoral, degrading, and false. The most one can say about religion in the abstract is that it gives ambiguous expression to what Christian tradition calls the "natural desire for God," and to a human openness to spiritual truth, revelation, or grace. Dennett may imagine that, by gravely informing us that this natural desire for God is in fact a desire for God that is natural, he is confronting us with a conceptual revolution, but, in fact, all he has produced is a minor modification of syntax.

These are rather elementary points, really, and rather obvious too. After all, the marvelous strength and fecundity of modern science is the result of the ascetical rigor with which it limits the scope of its inquiries. In the terms of Aristotle’s fourfold scheme of causality, science as we understand it now concerns itself solely with efficient and material causes while leaving the questions of formal and final causes unaddressed. Its aim is the scrupulous reconstruction of how things and events are generated or unfold, not speculation on why things become what they are or on the purpose of their existence. Much less is it concerned with the ontological cause of what it investigates: It has nothing to say regarding being as such, or how it is that anything exists at all, or what makes the universe to be. This is not to say that it has somehow disproved the reality of these other kinds of causality, or even entirely dispensed with formality or finality (at least as heuristic devices). But, still, such causes lie mostly outside the purview of modern science, and one believes in them, if one does, for reasons of an entirely different order.

Of course, one is free to regard formal and final causality as fictions (though they will always tend to reassert themselves, even if only subtly), and one may dismiss the question of being as meaningless or imponderable (though it is neither). But one should also then relinquish ambitions for empirical method it cannot fulfill. This applies to every discourse that aspires to the status of a science. If one wants to pursue a science of religion, one should know from the first that one will never produce a theory that could possibly be relevant to whether one should or should not believe that, for example, the transcendent God has revealed himself in history or within one’s own life.

Certainly the Christian should be undismayed by the notion that religion is natural "all the way down." Indeed, it should not matter whether religion is the result of evolutionary imperatives, or of an inclination toward belief inscribed in our genes and in the structure of our brains, or even (more fantastically) of memes that have impressed themselves on our minds and cultures and languages. All things are natural. But nature itself is created toward an end-its consummation in God-and is informed by a more eminent causality-the creative will of God-and is sustained in existence by its participation in the being that flows from God, who is the infinite wellspring of all actuality. And religion, as a part of nature, possesses an innate entelechy and is oriented like everything else toward the union of God and his creatures. Nor should the Christian expect to find any lacunae in the fabric of nature, needing to be repaired by the periodic interventions of a cosmic maintenance technician. God’s transcendence is absolute: He is cause of all things by giving existence to the whole, but nowhere need he act as a rival to any of the contingent, finite, secondary causes by which the universe lives, moves, and has its being in him.

In the end, nothing of any significance is decided by talking about religion in the abstract. It is a somewhat inane topic, really, relevant neither to belief nor to disbelief. It does not touch on the rationales or the experiences that determine anyone’s ultimate convictions, and certainly nothing important is to be learned from Daniel Dennett’s rancorous exchanges with nonexistent persons regarding the prospects for an impossible science devoted to an intrinsically indeterminate object. If Dennett really wishes to undertake a scientific investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion in the abstract and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its claims from within. As a first step, he should certainly-purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor-begin praying. This is a drastic and implausible prescription, no doubt, but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or what it is not.

As Peter Heath observed some decades ago in his wonderful book The Philosopher’s Alice, Lewis Carroll was not a writer of nonsense but rather an absurdist, and a Carrollian character is absurd precisely because he does not blithely depart from the rules but "persists in adhering to them long after it has ceased to be sensible to do so, and regardless of the extravagances which hereby result." When Carroll’s characters assume the authoritative tone, the opinions they express are invariably ridiculous, but those opinions "are held on principle and backed by formal argument. . . . The humor lies not in any arbitrary defiance of principle, but in seeing a reasonable position pushed or twisted by uncritical acceptance into a wholly unreasonable shape."

I would hesitate to say that Breaking the Spell is, in this sense, entirely absurd, as I doubt that it is tightly reasoned enough to merit the description. What does seem clear, however, is that, in its general form, the book’s argument is one that strives (not always successfully) to preserve the shape of reason, logic, and method, even though that shape has been largely evacuated of all rational, logical, or empirical content. To put the matter bluntly, no one could mistake it for a genuinely substantial argument who was not firmly intent on doing so before ever reading the book. Viewed impartially, Dennett’s project leads nowhere, and its diffuse and flimsy methods are altogether unequal to the task of capturing the complex, bewildering, endlessly diverse thing they are designed to subdue.

Dennett sets out with perhaps a pardonable excess of ambition-in the words of the Butcher,

In one moment I’ve seen what has hitherto been
Enveloped in absolute mystery,
And without extra charge I will give you at large
A lesson in Natural History.

But it soon becomes obvious that Dennett has no lesson to impart. He is, when all is said and done, merely hunting a Snark, and in some sense he can hardly avoid sharing the Baker’s fate. One need only read Breaking the Spell and then attempt to apply it in some meaningful or illuminative way to the terrible and splendid realities of religious belief to confirm this, because, once one has done that, one will immediately discover that the book’s entire argument has "softly and suddenly vanished away." And this, to the reflective reader, should come as no surprise, really, given the nature both of Dennett’s quest and of the quarry he has chosen to pursue-"For the Snark was a Boojum, you see."

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Pornography Culture

Writing not as a lawyer, I am able to address the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) only somewhat obliquely. Concerning the legal merits of the case, certainly, I have little to say. This is not necessarily because I believe one must be a lawyer to understand the Court’s decision, but because I am largely indifferent to the legal arguments contained within it, and am convinced that even the question of whether or not it was dictated by genuine constitutional concerns deserves very little attention (as I shall presently argue).

I can begin, however, by confessing my perplexity at some of the reasoning behind the court’s majority ruling, most especially the curious contention that COPA might prove to be unconstitutional on the grounds that there exists filtering software that provides a “less restrictive means” of preventing access to pornography on the Internet and that does not involve “criminalizing” any particular category of speech. Surely, if we are to be guided by logic, the existence or nonexistence of such software (which is, after all, merely a commercial product that parents may purchase and use if they are so inclined and have the money) cannot possibly make any difference regarding the question of whether the act violates constitutional protections. Moreover, it is difficult for me to grasp why the Court works upon the premise that whatever means are employed to protect children from Internet pornography should involve the barest minimum imposition possible upon the free expression of pornographers.

Again, not being a lawyer, I have no idea what shadowy precedents might be slouching about in the background of the Court’s decision, and I am aware that the alliance between law and logic is often a tenuous one. I can even appreciate something of the Court’s anxiety concerning the scope of the government’s control over “free expression,” given that the modern liberal democratic state—with its formidable apparatus of surveillance and legal coercion, and its inhuman magnitude, and its bureaucratic procedural callousness, and its powers of confiscation, taxation, and crippling prosecution, and its immense technological resources—is so very intrusive, sanctimonious, and irresistible a form of political authority. Allow the government even the smallest advance past the bulwark of the First Amendment, one might justly conclude, and before long we will find ourselves subject to some variant of “hate speech” legislation, of the sort that makes it a criminal offense in Canada and Northern Europe for, say, a priest to call attention publicly to biblical injunctions against homosexuality. We have, as a society, long accepted the legal fiction that we are incapable of even that minimal prudential wisdom necessary to distinguish speech or art worthy of protection from the most debased products of the imagination, and so have become content to rely upon the abstract promise of free speech as our only sure defense against the lure of authoritarianism. And perhaps, at this juncture in cultural history, this lack of judgment is no longer really a fiction.

In a larger sense, however, all human law is a fiction, especially law of the sort adjudicated by the Supreme Court. As much as jurists might be inclined to regard constitutional questions as falling entirely within the province of their art, the Constitution is not in fact merely a legal document; it is a philosophical and political charter, and law is only one (and, in isolation, a deficient) approach to it. Constitutional jurisprudence, moreover, is essentially a hermeneutical tradition; it is not the inexorable unfolding of irrefragable conclusions from unambiguous principles, but a history of willful and often arbitrary interpretation, and as such primarily reflects cultural decisions made well before any legal deliberation has begun. And since legal principles—as opposed to exact ordinances—are remarkable chiefly for their plasticity, it requires only a little hermeneutical audacity to make them say what we wish them to say (one never knows, after all, what emanations may be lurking in what penumbras). Just as the non-establishment clause might well have been taken—had our society evolved in a more civilized direction—as no more than a prohibition upon any federal legislation for or against the establishment of religion, so the promise of freedom of speech might have been taken as a defense of political or religious discourse, and nothing more. There is certainly no good reason why “free speech” should have come to mean an authorization of every conceivable form of expression, or should have been understood to encompass not only words but images and artifacts, or should have been seen as assuring either purveyors or consumers of such things a right of access to all available media or technologies of communication. We interpret it thus because of who we are as a society, or who we have chosen to be; we elect to understand “liberty” as “license.” How we construe the explicit premises enshrined in the constitution is determined by a host of unspoken premises that we merely presume, but that also define us. This is why I profess so little interest in the question of the constitutionality of COPA; the more interesting question, it seems to me, concerns what sort of society we have succeeded in creating if the conclusions we draw from the fundamental principles of our republic oblige us to defend pornographers’ access to a medium as pervasive, porous, complex, and malleable as the Internet against laws intended to protect children.

The damage that pornography can do—to minds or cultures—is not by any means negligible. Especially in our modern age of passive entertainment, saturated as we are by an unending storm of noises and images and barren prattle, portrayals of violence or of sexual degradation possess a remarkable power to permeate, shape, and deprave the imagination; and the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character. Anyone who would claim that constant or even regular exposure to pornography does not affect a person at the profoundest level of consciousness is either singularly stupid or singularly degenerate. Nor has the availability and profusion of pornography in modern Western culture any historical precedent. And the Internet has provided a means of distribution whose potentials we have scarcely begun to grasp. It is a medium of communication at once transnational and private, worldwide and discreet, universal and immediate. It is, as nothing else before it, the technology of what Gianni Vattimo calls the “transparent society,” the technology of global instantaneity, which allows images to be acquired in a moment from almost anywhere, conversations of extraordinary intimacy to be conducted with faceless strangers across continents, relations to be forged and compacts struck in almost total secrecy, silently, in a virtual realm into which no one—certainly no parent—can intrude. I doubt that even the most technologically avant-garde among us can quite conceive how rapidly and how insidiously such a medium can alter the culture around us.

We are already, as it happens, a casually and chronically pornographic society. We dress young girls in clothes so scant and meretricious that honest harlots are all but bereft of any distinctive method for catching a lonely man’s eye. The popular songs and musical spectacles we allow our children to listen to and watch have transformed many of the classic divertissements of the bordello—sexualized gamines, frolicsome tribades, erotic spanking, Oedipal fantasy, very bad “exotic” dance—into the staples of light entertainment. The spectrum of wit explored by television comedy runs largely between the pre- and the post-coital. In short, a great deal of the diabolistic mystique that once clung to pornography—say, in the days when even Aubrey Beardsley’s scarcely adolescent nudes still suggested to most persons a somewhat diseased sensibility—has now been more or less dispelled. But the Internet offers something more disturbing yet: an “interactive” medium for pornography, a parallel world at once fluid and labyrinthine, where the most extreme forms of depravity can be cheaply produced and then propagated on a global scale, where consumers (of almost any age) can be cultivated and groomed, and where a restless mind sheltered by an idle body can explore whole empires of vice in untroubled quiet for hours on end. Even if filtering software were as effective as it is supposed to be (and, as yet, it is not), the spiritually corrosive nature of the very worst pornography is such that—one would think—any additional legal or financial burden placed upon the backs of pornographers would be welcome.

I am obviously being willfully naïve. I know perfectly well that, as a culture, we value our “liberties” above almost every other good; indeed, it is questionable at times whether we have the capacity to recognize any rival good at all. The price of these liberties, however, is occasionally worth considering. I may be revealing just how quaintly reactionary I am in admitting that nothing about our pornographic society bothers me more than the degraded and barbarized vision of the female body and soul it has so successfully promoted, and in admitting also (perhaps more damningly) that I pine rather pathetically for the days of a somewhat more chivalrous image of women. One of the high achievements of Western civilization, after all, was in finding so many ways to celebrate, elevate, and admire the feminine; while remaining hierarchical and protective in its understanding of women, of course, Christendom also cultivated—as perhaps no other civilization ever has—a solicitude for and a deference towards women born out of a genuine reverence for their natural and supernatural dignity. It may seem absurd even to speak of such things at present, after a century of Western culture’s sedulous effort to drain the masculine and the feminine of anything like cosmic or spiritual mystery, and now that vulgarity and aggressiveness are the common property of both sexes and often provide the chief milieu for their interactions. But it is sobering to reflect how far a culture of sexual “frankness” has gone in reducing men and women alike to a level of habitual brutishness that would appall us beyond rescue were we not, as a people, so blessedly protected by our own bad taste. The brief flourishing of the 1970s ideal of masculinity—the epicene ectomorph, sensitive, nurturing, flaccid—soon spawned a renaissance among the young of the contrary ideal of conscienceless and predatory virility. And, as imaginations continue to be shaped by our pornographic society, what sorts of husbands or fathers are being bred? And how will women continue to conform themselves—as surely they must—to our cultural expectations of them? To judge from popular entertainment, our favored images of women fall into two complementary, if rather antithetical, classes: on the one hand, sullen, coarse, quasi-masculine belligerence, on the other, pliant and wanton availability to the most primordial of male appetites—in short, viragoes or odalisks. I am fairly sure that, if I had a daughter, I should want her society to provide her with a sentimental education of richer possibilities than that.

My backwardness aside, however, it is more than empty nostalgia or neurotic anxiety to ask what virtues men and women living in an ever more pervasively pornographic culture can hope to nourish in themselves or in their children. Sane societies, at any rate, care about such things—more, I would argue, than they care about the “imperative” of placing as few constraints as possible upon individual expression. But we have made the decision as a society that unfettered personal volition is (almost) always to be prized, in principle, above the object towards which volition is directed. It is in the will—in the liberty of choice—that we place primary value, which means that we must as a society strive, as far as possible, to recognize as few objective goods outside the self as we possibly can.

Of course, we are prepared to set certain objective social and legal limits to the exercise of the will, but these are by their very nature flexible and frail, and the great interminable task of human “liberation”—as we tend to understand it—is over time to erase as many of these limits as we safely can. The irreducibly “good” for us is subjective desire, self-expression, self-creation. The very notion that the society we share could be an organically moral realm, devoted as a whole to the formation of the mind or the soul, or that unconstrained personal license might actually make society as a whole less free by making others powerless against the consequences of the “rights” we choose to exercise, runs contrary to all our moral and (dare one say?) metaphysical prejudices. We are devoted to—indeed, in a sense, we worship—the will; and we are hardly the first people willing to offer up our children to our god.

The history of modern political and social doctrine is, to a large degree, the history of Western culture’s long, laborious departure from Jewish, classical, and Christian models of freedom, and the history in consequence of the ascendancy of the language of “rights” over every other possible grammar of the good. It has become something of a commonplace among scholars to note that—from at least the time of Plato through the high Middle Ages—the Western understanding of human freedom was inseparable from an understanding of human nature: to be free was to be able to flourish as the kind of being one was, so as to attain the ontological good towards which one’s nature was oriented (i.e., human excellence, charity, the contemplation of God, and so on). For this reason, the movement of the will was always regarded as posterior to the object of its intentions, as something wakened and moved by a desire for rational life’s proper telos, and as something truly free only insofar as it achieved that end towards which it was called. To choose awry, then—through ignorance or maleficence or corrupt longing—was not considered a manifestation of freedom, but of slavery to the imperfect, the deficient, the privative, the (literally) subhuman. Liberty of choice was only the possibility of freedom, not its realization, and a society could be considered just only insofar as it allowed for and aided in the cultivation of virtue.

There would be little purpose here in rehearsing the story of how late medieval “voluntarism” altered the understanding of freedom—both divine and human—in the direction of the self-moved will, and subtly elevated will in the sense of sheer spontaneity of choice (arbitrium) over will in the sense of a rational nature’s orientation towards the good (voluntas); or of how later moral and political theory evolved from this one strange and vital apostasy, until freedom came to be conceived not as the liberation of one’s nature, but as power over one’s nature. What is worth noting, however, is that the modern understanding of freedom is essentially incompatible with the Jewish, classical, or Christian understanding of man, the world, and society. Freedom, as we now conceive of it, presumes—and must ever more consciously pursue—an irreducible nihilism: for there must literally be nothing transcendent of the will that might command it towards ends it would not choose for itself, no value higher than those the will imposes upon its world, no nature but what the will elects for itself. It is also worth noting, somewhat in passing, that only a society ordered towards the transcendental structure of being—towards the true, the good, and the beautiful—is capable of anything we might meaningfully describe as civilization, as it is only in the interval between the good and the desire wakened by it that the greatest cultural achievements are possible. Of a society no longer animated by any aspiration nobler than the self’s perpetual odyssey of liberation, the best that can be expected is a comfortable banality. Perhaps, indeed, a casually and chronically pornographic society is the inevitable form late modern liberal democratic order must take, since it probably lacks the capacity for anything better.

All of which yields two conclusions. The first is that the gradual erosion—throughout the history of modernity—of any concept of society as a moral and spiritual association governed by useful ethical prejudices, immemorial reverences, and subsidiary structures of authority (church, community, family) has led inevitably to a constant expansion of the power of the state. In fact, it is ever more the case that there are no significant social realities other than the state and the individual (collective will and personal will). And in the absence of a shared culture of virtue, the modern liberal state must function—even if benignly—as a police state, making what use it may of the very technologies that COPA was intended somewhat to control. And that may be the truly important implication of a decision such as the Supreme Court’s judgment on COPA: whether we are considering the power of the federal government to penalize pornographers or the power of the federal court to shelter them against such penalties, it is a power that has no immediate or necessary connection to the culture over which it holds sway. We call upon the state to shield us from vice or to set our vices free, because we do not have a culture devoted to the good, or dedicated to virtue, or capable of creating a civil society that is hospitable to any freedom more substantial than that of subjective will. This is simply what it is to be modern.

The second conclusion is that every time a decision like that regarding COPA is handed down by the Court, it should serve to remind us that between the biblical and the liberal democratic traditions there must always be some element of tension. What either understands as freedom the other must view as a form of bondage. This particular Court decision is not especially dramatic in this regard—it is certainly nowhere near as apocalyptic in its implications as Roe v. Wade—and no doubt there are sound legal and even ethical arguments to be made on either side of the issue, within the terms our society can recognize. But perhaps the COPA decision can provide some of us, at least, with a certain salutary sense of alienation: it is good to be reminded from time to time—good for persons like me, with certain pre-modern prejudices—that our relations with the liberal democratic order can be cordial to a degree, but are at best provisional and fleeting, and can never constitute a firm alliance; that here we have no continuing city; that we belong to a kingdom not of this world; and that, while we are bound to love our country, we are forbidden to regard it as our true home.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Anti-Theology of the Body

To ask what the legacy of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body might be for future debates in bioethics is implicitly to ask what relevance it has for current debates in bioethics. And this creates something of a problem, because there is a real sense in which it has none at all—at least, if by “relevance” one means discrete logical propositions or policy recommendations that might be extracted from the larger context of John Paul’s teachings so as to “advance the conversation” or “suggest a middle course” or “clarify ethical ambiguities.” Simply said, the book does not offer arguments, or propositions, or (thank God) “suggestions.” Rather, it enunciates with extraordinary fullness a complete vision of the spiritual and corporeal life of the human being; that vision is a self-sufficient totality, which one is free to embrace or reject as a whole. To one who holds to John Paul’s Christian understanding of the body, and so believes that each human being, from the very first moment of existence, emerges from and is called towards eternity, there are no negotiable or even very perplexing issues regarding our moral obligations before the mystery of life. Not only is every abortion performed an act of murder, but so is the destruction of every “superfluous” embryo created in fertility clinics or every embryo produced for the purposes of embryonic stem cell research. The fabrication of clones, the invention of “chimeras” through the miscegenation of human and animal DNA, and of course the termination of supernumerary, dispensable, or defective specimens that such experimentation inevitably entails are in every case irredeemably evil. Even if, say, research on embryonic stem cells could produce therapies that would heal the lame, or reverse senility, or repair a damaged brain, or prolong life, this would in no measure alter the moral calculus of the situation: human life is an infinite good, never an instrumental resource; human life is possessed of an absolute sanctity, and no benefit (real or supposed) can justify its destruction.

In a wider sense, though, I would want to argue that it is precisely this “irrelevance” that makes John Paul’s theology truly relevant (in another sense) to contemporary bioethics. I must say that what I, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, find most exhilarating about the Theology of the Body is not simply that it is perfectly consonant with the Orthodox understanding of the origins and ends of human nature (as indeed it is), but that from beginning to end it is a text awash in the clear bright light of uncompromising conviction. There is about it something of that sublime indifference to the banal pieties and prejudices of modernity that characterizes Eastern Orthodoxy at its best. It simply restates the ancient Christian understanding of man, albeit in the somewhat phenomenological idiom for which John Paul had so marked a penchant, and invites the reader to enter into the world it describes. And at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection—or, one might almost say, ignorance—of any dualism between flesh and spirit.

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul—whether we believe in the soul or not—as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. That is to say, we tend to imagine the relation between the soul and the body as an utter discontinuity somehow subsumed within a miraculous unity: a view capable of yielding such absurdities as the Cartesian postulate that the soul resides in the pituitary gland or the utterly superstitious speculation advanced by some religious ethicists that the soul may “enter” the fetus some time in the second trimester. But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit. John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion. This means that even if one should trace the life of the body back to its most primordial principles, one would still never arrive at that point where the properly human vanishes and leaves a “mere” physical organism or aggregation of inchoate tissues or ferment of spontaneous chemical reactions behind. All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity and a vocation to union with God.

The far antipodes of John Paul’s vision of the human, I suppose, are to be found at the lunatic fringe of bioethics, in that fanatically “neo-Darwinist” movement that has crystallized around the name of “transhumanism.” A satirist with a genius for the morbid could scarcely have invented a faction more depressingly sickly, and yet—in certain reaches of the scientific community—it is a movement that enjoys some real degree of respectability. Its principal tenet is that it is now incumbent upon humanity to take control of its own evolution, which on account of the modern world’s technological advances and social policies has tragically stalled at the level of the merely anthropine; as we come to master the mysteries of the genome, we must choose what we are to be, so as to progress beyond Homo sapiens, perhaps one day to become beings—in the words of the Princeton biologist Lee Silver—“as different from humans as humans are from...primitive worms” (which are, I suppose, to be distinguished from sophisticated worms). We must seek, that is to say, to become gods. Many of the more deliriously visionary of the transhumanists envisage a day when we will be free to alter and enhance ourselves at will, unconstrained by law or shame or anything resembling good taste: by willfully transgressing the genetic boundaries between species (something that we are already learning how to do), we may be able to design new strains of hybrid life, or even to produce an endlessly proliferating variety of new breeds of the post-human that may no longer even have the capacity to reproduce one with the other. (For those whose curiosity runs to the macabre, Wesley Smith’s recent Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World provides a good synopsis of the transhumanist creed.)

Obviously one is dealing here with a sensibility formed more by comic books than by serious thought. Ludicrous as it seems, though, transhumanism is merely one logical consequence (if a particularly childish one) of the surprising reviviscence of eugenic ideology in the academic, scientific, and medical worlds. Most of the new eugenists, admittedly, see their solicitude for the greater wellbeing of the species as suffering from none of the distasteful authoritarianism of the old racialist eugenics, since all they advocate (they say) is a kind of elective genetic engineering—a bit of planned parenthood here, the odd reluctant act of infanticide there, a soupçon of judicious genetic tinkering everywhere, and a great deal of prudent reflection upon the suitability of certain kinds of embryos—but clearly they are deluding themselves or trying to deceive us. Far more intellectually honest are those—like the late, almost comically vile Joseph Fletcher of Harvard—who openly acknowledge that any earnest attempt to improve the human stock must necessarily involve some measures of legal coercion. Fletcher, of course, was infamously unabashed in castigating modern medicine for “polluting” our gene pool with inferior specimens and in rhapsodizing upon the benefits the race would reap from instituting a regime of genetic invigilation that would allow society to eliminate “idiots” and “cripples” and other genetic defectives before they could burden us with their worthless lives. It was he who famously declared that reproduction is a privilege, not a right, and suggested that perhaps mothers should be forced by the state to abort “diseased” babies if they refused to do so of their own free will. Needless to say, state-imposed sterilization struck him as a reasonable policy; and he agreed with Linus Pauling that it might be wise to consider segregating genetic inferiors into a recognizable caste, marked out by indelible brands impressed upon their brows. And, striking a few minor transhumanist chords of his own, he even advocated—in a deranged and hideous passage from his book The Ethics of Genetic Control—the creation of “chimeras or do dangerous or demeaning jobs” of the sort that are now “shoved off on moronic or retarded individuals”—which, apparently, was how he viewed janitors, construction workers, firefighters, miners, and persons of that ilk.

Of course, there was always a certain oafish audacity in Fletcher’s degenerate driveling about “morons” and “defectives,” given that there is good cause to suspect, from a purely utilitarian vantage, that academic ethicists—especially those like Fletcher, who are notoriously mediocre thinkers, possessed of small culture, no discernible speculative gifts, no records of substantive philosophical achievement, and execrable prose styles—constitute perhaps the single most useless element in society. If reproduction is not a right but a social function, should any woman be allowed to bring such men into the world? And should those men be permitted, in their turn, to sire offspring? I ask this question entirely in earnest, because I think it helps to identify the one indubitable truth about all social movements towards eugenics: namely, that the values that will determine which lives are worth living, and which not, will always be the province of persons of vicious temperament. If I were asked to decide what qualities to suppress or encourage in the human species, I might first attempt to discover if there is such a thing as a genetic predisposition to moral idiocy and then, if there is, to eliminate it; then there would be no more Joseph Fletchers (or Peter Singers, or Linus Paulings, or James Rachels), and I might think all is well. But, of course, the very idea is a contradiction in terms. Decisions regarding who should or should not live can, by definition, be made only by those who believe such decisions should be made; and therein lies the horror that nothing can ever exorcise from the ideology behind human bioengineering.

Transhumanism, as a moral philosophy, is so risibly fabulous in its prognostications, and so unrelated to anything that genomic research yet promises, that it can scarcely be regarded as anything more than a pathetic dream; but the metaphysical principles it presumes regarding the nature of the human are anything but eccentric. Joseph Fletcher was a man with a manifestly brutal mind, desperately anxious to believe himself superior to the common run of men, one who apparently received some sort of crypto-erotic thrill from his cruel fantasies of creating a slave race, and of literally branding others as his genetic inferiors, and of exercising power over the minds and bodies of the low-born. And yet his principles continue to win adherents in the academy and beyond it, and his basic presuppositions about the value and meaning of life are the common grammar of a shockingly large portion of bioethicists. If ever the day comes when we are willing to consider a program, however modest, of improving the species through genetic planning and manipulation, it will be exclusively those who hold such principles and embrace such presuppositions who will determine what the future of humanity will be. And men who are impatient of frailty and contemptuous of weakness are, at the end of the day, inevitably evil.

Why dwell on these things, though? After all, most of the more prominent debates in bioethics at the moment do not actually concern systematic eugenics or, certainly, “post-humanity,” but center upon issues of medical research and such matters as the disposition of embryos who will never mature into children. It is true that we have already begun to transgress the demarcations between species—often in pursuit of a medical or technological benefit—and cloning is no longer merely a matter of speculation. But even here issues of health and of new therapeutic techniques predominate, and surely these require some degree of moral subtlety from all of us. Am I not, then, simply skirting difficult questions of practical ethics so as to avoid allowing any ambiguity to invade my Christian absolutism? Perhaps. But it seems to me that the metaphysics, dogma, and mysticism of “transhumanism” or Fletcherite eugenics hide behind, and await us as the inevitable terminus of, every movement that subordinates or sacrifices the living soul—the life that is here before us, in the moment, in all its particularity and fragility—to the progress of science, of medicine, or of the species. That is to say, I dwell upon extremes because I believe it is in extremes that truth is most likely to be found. And this brings me back to John Paul II’s theology of the body.

The difference between John Paul’s theological anthropology and the pitilessly consistent materialism of the transhumanists and their kith—and this is extremely important to grasp—is a difference not simply between two radically antagonistic visions of what it is to be a human being, but between two radically antagonistic visions of what it is to be a god. There is, as it happens, nothing inherently wicked in the desire to become a god, at least not from the perspective of Christian tradition; and I would even say that if there is one element of the transhumanist creed that is not wholly contemptible—one isolated moment of innocence, however fleeting and imperfect—it is the earnestness with which it gives expression to this perfectly natural longing. Theologically speaking, the proper destiny of human beings is to be “glorified”—or “divinized”—in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, to become “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4), to be called “gods” (Psalm 82:6; John 10:34-36). This is the venerable doctrine of “theosis” or “deification,” the teaching that—to employ a lapidary formula of great antiquity—“God became man that man might become god”: that is to say, in assuming human nature in the incarnation, Christ opened the path to union with the divine nature for all persons. From the time of the Church Fathers through the high Middle Ages, this understanding of salvation was a commonplace of theology. Admittedly, until recently it had somewhat disappeared from most Western articulations of the faith, but in the East it has always enjoyed a somewhat greater prominence; and it stands at the very center of John Paul’s theology of the body. As he writes in Evangelium Vitae:

Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase.

John Paul’s anthropology is what a certain sort of Orthodox theologian might call a “theandric” humanism. “Life in the Spirit,” the most impressive of the texts collected in the Theology of the Body, is to a large extent an attempt to descry the true form of man by looking to the end towards which he is called, so that the glory of his eschatological horizon, so to speak, might cast its radiance back upon the life he lives in via here below. Thus, for John Paul, the earthly body in all its frailty and indigence and limitation is always already on the way to the glorious body of resurrection of which Paul speaks; the mortal body is already the seed of the divinized and immortal body of the Kingdom; the weakness of the flesh is already, potentially, the strength of “the body full of power”; the earthly Adam is already joined to the glory of the last Adam, the risen and living Christ. For the late pope, divine humanity is not something that in a simple sense lies beyond the human; it does not reside in some future, post-human race to which the good of the present must be offered up; it is instead a glory hidden in the depths of every person, even the least of us—even “defectives” and “morons” and “genetic inferiors,” if you will—waiting to be revealed, a beauty and dignity and power of such magnificence and splendor that, could we see it now, it would move us either to worship or to terror.

Obviously none of this would interest or impress the doctrinaire materialist. The vision of the human that John Paul articulates and the vision of the “transhuman” to which the still nascent technology of genetic manipulation has given rise are divided not by a difference in practical or ethical philosophy, but by an irreconcilable hostility between two religions, two metaphysics, two worlds—at the last, two gods. And nothing less than the moral nature of society is at stake. If, as I have said, the metaphysics of transhumanism is inevitably implied within such things as embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, then to embark upon them is already to invoke and invite the advent of a god who will, I think, be a god of boundless horror, one with a limitless appetite for sacrifice. And it is by their gods that human beings are shaped and known. In some very real sense, “man” is always only the shadow of the god upon whom he calls: for in the manner by which we summon and propitiate that god, and in that ultimate value that he represents for us, who and what we are is determined.

The materialist who wishes to see modern humanity’s Baconian mastery over cosmic nature expanded to encompass human nature as well—granting us absolute power over the flesh and what is born from it, banishing all fortuity and uncertainty from the future of the race—is someone who seeks to reach the divine by ceasing to be human, by surpassing the human, by destroying the human. It is a desire both fantastic and depraved: a diseased titanism, the dream of an infinite passage through monstrosity, a perpetual and ruthless sacrifice of every present good to the featureless, abysmal, and insatiable god who is to come. For the Christian to whom John Paul speaks, however, one can truly aspire to the divine only through the charitable cultivation of glory in the flesh, the practice of holiness, the love of God and neighbor; and, in so doing, one seeks not to take leave of one’s humanity, but to fathom it in its ultimate depth, to be joined to the Godman who would remake us in himself, and so to become simul divinus et creatura. This is a pure antithesis. For those who, on the one hand, believe that life is merely an accidental economy of matter that should be weighed by a utilitarian calculus of means and ends and those who, on the other, believe that life is a supernatural gift oriented towards eternal glory, every moment of existence has a different significance and holds a different promise. To the one, a Down syndrome child (for instance) is a genetic scandal, one who should probably be destroyed in the womb as a kind of oblation offered up to the social good and, of course, to some immeasurably remote future; to the other, that same child is potentially (and thus far already) a being so resplendent in his majesty, so mighty, so beautiful that we could scarcely hope to look upon him with the sinful eyes of this life and not be consumed.

It may well be that the human is an epoch, in some sense. The idea of the infinite value of every particular life does not accord with instinct, as far as one can tell, but rather has a history. The ancient triumph of the religion of divine incarnation inaugurated a new vision of man, however fitfully and failingly that vision was obeyed in subsequent centuries. Perhaps this notion of an absolute dignity indwelling every person—this Christian invention or discovery or convention—is now slowly fading from our consciences and will finally be replaced by something more “realistic” (which is to say, something more nihilistic). Whatever the case, John Paul’s theology of the body will never, as I have said, be “relevant” to the understanding of the human that lies “beyond” Christian faith. Between these two orders of vision there can be no fruitful commerce, no modification of perspectives, no debate, indeed no “conversation.” All that can ever span the divide between them is the occasional miraculous movement of conversion or the occasional tragic movement of apostasy. Thus the legacy of that theology will be to remain, for Christians, a monument to the grandeur and fullness of their faith’s “total humanism,” so to speak, to remind them how vast the Christian understanding of humanity’s nature and destiny is, and to inspire them—whenever they are confronted by any philosophy, ethics, or science that would reduce any human life to an instrumental moment within some larger design—to a perfect and unremitting enmity.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Religion in America: Ancient and Modern

All culture arises out of religion. When religious faith decays, culture must decline, though often seeming to flourish for a space after the religion which has nourished it has sunk into disbelief ... no cultured person should remain indifferent to erosion of apprehension of the transcendent.

--Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age

The herdsman who comes to Pentheus from Mount Cithaeron, in The Bacchae, tells how the Theban women possessed by Dionysus take up serpents without being bitten and fire without being burned. It is not unlikely, given how common such phenomena are in "enthusiast" and "ecstatic" religion, that here and elsewhere Euripides grants us some glimpse of the actual Dionysiac orgy, even long after its migration into Greece from Thrace, when the cult had been assumed into the soberer mysteries of the Olympians.

And other features of the rite, reported in various sources, follow the familiar enthusiast pattern. At the height of their devotions, the maenads were seized by violent raptures, to which they surrendered entirely; absorbed in the formless beauty of the god, and tormented by fitful intimations of his presence, they worshipped him with cries of longing and delight, desperate invocations, wild dithyrambs, delirious dance, inebriation, and the throbbing din of corybantic music; abandoning all sense of themselves, they suffered visions and uttered prophecies, fell ravished and writhing to the earth, or sank into insensibility. In short, it was all very--in a word--American.

At least, that is what I have been disposed to think ever since an epiphany visited itself upon me nearly twenty years ago, as I stood amid the pestilential squalor of an English railway station, awaiting my train, and deliberating on whether I should risk the ordeal of a British Rail sandwich.

Generally one might prefer grander settings for one's moments of illumination--Wordsworth's lakes, Amiel's azure peaks--but it was, in this instance, the very dreariness of my surroundings that occasioned my awakening. The station's oblong pillars were blackly begrimed; shreds of posters in garish hues hung limply from the walls; in shallow depressions of the concrete floor opaque pools of oleaginous water glistened with a sinister opalescence; an astringent chemical odor of antiseptics vying with various organic purulences suffused the damp air; a scattering of garret torsos farther along the platform bore eloquent witness to the malaise of Britain's post-war gene pool; and nothing was out of the ordinary. But, all at once, two thoughts occurred to me simultaneously, and their wholly fortuitous conjunction amounted to a revelation. One was something like "Boredom is the death of civilization"; and the other something like "America has never been this modern."

Not that this place was conspicuously worse than--or even as wretched as--countless stops along the way in the United States, but anyone who has lived in Britain for some time should understand how such a place might, in a moment of calm clarity, seem like the gray glacial heart of a gray and glaciated universe. Somehow this place was adequate to its age--to that pervasive social atmosphere of resignation at which modern Britain is all but unsurpassed; it was disenchantment made palpable, the material manifestation of a national soul unstirred by extravagant expectations or exorbitant hopes. Admittedly, contemporary England's epic drabness makes everything seem worse; in the Mediterranean sun, culture's decay can be intoxicatingly charming (and Catholic decadence is so much richer than Protestant decadence).

But really, anywhere throughout the autumnal world of old and dying Christendom, there are instants (however fleeting) when one cannot help but feel (however imprecisely) that something vital has perished, a cultural confidence or a spiritual aspiration, and it is obviously something inseparable from the faith that shaped and animated European civilization for nearly two millennia. Hence the almost prophetic "fittingness" of that rail station: once religious imagination and yearning have departed from a culture, the lowest, grimmest, most tedious level of material existence becomes not just one of reality's unpleasant aspects, but in some sense the limit that marks out the "truth" of things.

This is an inexcusably impressionistic way of thinking, I know, but it seems to me at least to suggest a larger cause for the remarkable willful infertility of the native European peoples: not simply general affluence, high taxes, sybaritism, working women, or historical exhaustion, but a vast metaphysical boredom. This is not to say that the American birthrate overall is particularly robust, hovering as it is just at or below "replacement level," but it has not sunk to the European continental average of only 1.4 children per woman (so reports the UN), let alone to that of such extreme individual cases as Spain (1.07), Germany (1.3), or Italy (1.2). Britain, at almost 1.7 children per woman, is positively philoprogenitive by European standards. And the most important reason for the greater--though not spectacular--fecundity of the United States appears to be the relatively high rate of birth among its most religious families (the godless being also usually the most likely to be childless).

It is fairly obvious that there is some direct, indissoluble bond between faith and the will to a future, or between the desire for a future and the imagination of eternity. And I think this is why post-Christian Europe seems to lack not only the moral and imaginative resources for sustaining its civilization, but even any good reason for continuing to reproduce. There are of course those few idealists who harbor some kind of unnatural attachment to that misbegotten abomination, the European Union--that grand project for forging an identity for post-Christian civilization out of the meager provisions of heroic humanism or liberal utopianism or ethical sincerity--but, apart from a bureaucratic superstate, providently and tenderly totalitarian, one cannot say what there is to expect from that quarter: certainly nothing on the order of some great cultural renewal that might inspire a new zeal for having children.

Unless one grants credence to the small but fashionable set that has of late been predicting a reviviscence of Christianity in Europe (in gay defiance of all tangible evidence), it seems certain that Europe will continue to sink into its demographic twilight and increasingly to look like the land of the "last men" that Nietzsche prophesied would follow the "death of God": a realm of sanctimony, petty, sensualisms, pettier rationalisms, and a vaguely euthanasiac addiction to comfort. For, stated simply, against the withering boredom that descends upon a culture no longer invaded by visions of eternal order, no civilization can endure.

As I say, however, this absolute degree of modernity has never quite reached America's shores. Obviously, in any number of ways, America is late modernity's avant-garde; in popular culture, especially, so prolific are we in forms of brutal vapidity, and intellectual poverty that less enterprising savages can only marvel in impotent envy. Nevertheless, here alone among Western nations the total victory of the modern is not indubitable; there are whole regions of the country--geographical and social--where the sea of faith's melancholy, long, withdrawing roar is scarcely audible. There is in America something that, while not "Christendom" is not simply "post-Christian" either; it is (for want of a better term) a "new antiquity." In many ways, one might go so far as to say, the great difference between Europeans and Americans is that the former are moderns and the latter ancients (if sometimes of a still rather barbarous sort); and the reasons for this are religious.

Though really it would be truer to say that, as Americans, we know the extremes of both antiquity and modernity; what we have never yet possessed is the middle term--a native civilization, with religion as a staid mad stable institution uniformly supporting the integrity of the greater culture--that might have allowed for a transition from the one to the other. Thus it is the tension between the two that makes America exceptional, and that lends a certain credibility both to those who contemn her for being so menacingly religious and to those who despise her for being so aggressively godless. In part because the United States broke from the old world at a fateful moment in history, in part because its immense geography preserves the restive peculiarities of various regions and social classes relatively inviolate and so allows even the most exotic expressions of religious devotion to survive and flourish, it has never lost the impress of much of the seventeenth-century Protestantism--evangelistic, ecclesially deracinated, congregationalist, separatist--that provided it with its initial spiritual impulse. Hence Christendom could never die from within for us, as it has for the rest of the West; we fled from it long ago into an apocalyptic future and so never quite suffered Europe's total descent into the penury of the present.

Instead, the United States, to the consternation of bien pensants here and abroad, is saturated in religion as no other developed nation is. Not only do 40 percent of its citizens claim to attend worship weekly, and 60 percent at least monthly (though those numbers have been disputed), but apparently--staggeringly--fewer than 5 percent are willing to call themselves atheists or even agnostics. And an extraordinary number of the devout (at least in certain classes) are not merely pious, but God-haunted, apocalyptic, chiliastic, vulgarly religiose, and always living in the end times.

Moreover, for most of us (even if we refuse to admit it), America itself is a kind of evangelical faith, a transcendent truth beyond the reach of historical contingency. Even our native secularism tends towards the fanatical. We remain believers. To some, of course, this American religiousness is simply an exasperatingly persistent residue of something obsolete, an alloy of which modernity has not yet entirely purged itself, and perhaps history will prove them right. But it is likely that such persons do not quite grasp the scale, potency, or creativity, of the "ancient" aspect of America and have little sense of its deepest wellsprings. Which brings me back to the maenads of Dionysus.

In his account of Appalachian snake handling, Salvation on Sand Mountain (1995), Dennis Covington tells of worshippers taking up serpents without being bitten and fire without being burned; of a woman, seized by raptures, emitting ecstatic cries of pain and pleasure, which Covington himself involuntarily accompanies with a tambourine; of the "anointed" losing themselves in what could only be called an erotic torment; of wild clamors of glossolalia, fervent invocation, and the throbbing din of Pentecostalist music; of the faithful suffering visions and uttering prophecies; even of his own experience of handling a snake, and of his sense of world and self, in that moment, disappearing into an abyss of light. Nor is it unusual in many "Holiness" congregations for worshippers to fall to the ground writhing and "rolling" or--"slain in the Spirit"--to lapse into insensibility.

Not that such forms of devotion are unknown in other parts of the developed world, but only here have they been so profuse, spontaneous, and genuinely indigenous. One might, for instance, adduce the 1801 week-long revival at Cane Ridge, whose orgiastic rites were celebrated by as many as twenty-five thousand worshippers, or the 1906 "new outpouring" of the scriptural "gifts" or "charisms" of the Holy Spirit--prophecy, speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, the casting out of demons, and so forth--upon the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles, which gave birth to the "Pentecostalist" or "charismatic" spirituality that has spread throughout the global South more rapidly than any other form of Christianity in the modern world. Examples are abundant.

And this is why I say Americans are "ancients:" not simply because, throughout the breadth of their continental empire, as in the world of late antiquity, there exists a vague civic piety ramifying into a vast diversity of religious expressions, even of the most mysterious and disturbing kind; but because here there are those to whom the god--or rather God or his angel--still appears. That sort of religion is immune to disillusion, as it has never coalesced into an "illusion"; it moves at the level of vision. In a country where such things are possible, and even somewhat ordinary, the future cannot be predicted with any certitude.

One must at least say of the old Christendom that, if indeed it has died, it has nonetheless left behind plentiful and glorious evidence of its vanished majesty: its millennial growths of etherealized granite and filigreed marble, its exquisitely wrought silver, its vaults of gold: in all the arts miracles of immensity and delicacy. And the very desuetude of these remnants imbues them with a special charm. Just as the exuviae of cicadas acquire their milky translucence and poignant fragility only in being evacuated of anything living, so the misty, haunting glamour of the churches of France might be invisible but for the desolation in their pews. Similarly, countless traces of the old social accommodations--laws, institutions, customs, traditions of education, public calendars, moral prejudices, in short all those complex "mediating structures" by which the old religion united, permeated, shaped, and preserved a Christian civilization--linger on, ruined, barren, but very lovely.

There is nothing in the least majestic, poignant, or "exuvial" about American religion, and not only because it possessed very little by way of mediating structures to begin with. If the vestigial Christianity of the old world presents one with the pathetic spectacle of shape without energy, the quite robust Christianity of the new world often presents one with the disturbing spectacle of energy without shape. It is not particularly original to observe that, in the dissolution of Christendom, Europe retained the body while America inherited the spirit, but one sometimes wonders whether for "spirit" it would not be better to say "poltergeist." It is true that the majority of observant Christians and Jews in the United States are fairly conventional in their practices and observances, and the "mainstream" denominations are nothing if not reserved. But, at its most unrestrained and disembodied, the American religious imagination drifts with astonishing ease towards the fantastical and mantic, the messianic and hermetic. We are occasionally given shocking reminders of this--when a communitarian separatist sect in Guyana or a cult of comet-gazing castrati commits mass suicide, or when an encampment of deviant Adventists is incinerated by an inept Attorney General--but these are merely acute manifestations of a chronic condition. The special genius of American religion (if that is what it is) is an inchoate, irrepressibly fissiparous force, a peregrine spirit of beginnings and endings (always re-founding the church and preparing for Armageddon), without any middle in which to come to rest.

In part, this is explicable simply in light of colonial history. The founding myth of the English settlements, after all, was in large part that of an evangelical adventure (as can be confirmed from the first Charter of Virginia, or the Mayflower Compact, or the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut), marked indelibly by covenantal Puritanism.

Even the Anglican establishments in the Deep South, Virginia, and Maryland (a criminal imposition, in this last case, upon an aboriginal Catholicism) were deeply influenced by Puritan piety, as were perhaps even the Presbyterian churches. Quakerism, principally in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, infused a mystical noncomformism into the colonies, while later immigrations of German Anabaptists--Mennonites, the Amish, Hutterites--imported a "free church" discipline of somewhat more rigorist variety, and perhaps something of radical Anabaptism's apocalyptic utopianism (it would be difficult, at any rate, to be unimpressed by the similarities between the tragic history of the 1535 "Kingdom of Munster" and that of the compound at Waco). In time even small Pietist communities added their distinctive colorations. And so on.

Though the churches of the magisterial reformation, the Church of England, and Catholicism found America fertile soil (as every, religion does), the atmosphere in which they flourished was one permeated by a religious consciousness little bound to tradition, creed, hierarchy, or historical memory, but certain of its spiritual liberty and special election.

Which is why one could argue that American religion found its first genuinely native expression during the great age of revivalism. The two Great Awakenings, early and late in the eighteenth century, the spread of evangelical Christianity throughout the southern states, the sporadic but powerful western revivals--all of these contributed to the larger synthesis by which contemporary American religion was fashioned. And from the revivalist impulse followed not only the broad main currents of American evangelical Protestantism, but also innumerable more heterodox and inventive forms of Christianity: millenarian sects like the Adventists or Jehovah's Witnesses, spiritual or enthusiast movements like Pentecostalism, perhaps even (in a way) "transcendentalist" schools like the quasi-Swedenborgian Christian Scientists. Nor, indeed, are the differences in sensibility as great as one might imagine between all of mainstream evangelicalism and its more outlandish offshoots (one need only consider the huge success of the ghastly Left Behind novels to realize that an appetite for luridly absurd chiliastic fantasies is by no means confined to marginal sects).

Certainly it is only in regard to this revivalist milieu that one might legitimately speak of "the American religion" as Harold Bloom did in his 1992 book of that title. Bloom, it should be noted, was scarcely the first to call it a "gnostic" religion, nor is his treatment of the matter exemplary in analytic precision, but he must be given credit for having grasped how deeply constitutive of America's normal religious temper the gnostic impulse is. If the pathos of ancient Gnosticism lay in a sense of cosmic alienation--in an intuition of the self's exile in a strange world, called in its loneliness to an identity and a salvation experienced only within the self's inmost core, and that by the agencies of a special spiritual election and knowledge that elevate the self above the ignorance of the derelict--then it is a pathos readily discernible in any number of distinctively American religious movements and moments. One finds it at its most speculatively refined and eloquent in Emerson and in the transcendentalism to which he gave voice; at its most risible and grotesque in Scientology and similar "schools." As Bloom notes, nothing more perfectly fits the classic pattern of gnostic religion--fabulous mythologies, jealously guarded cryptadia, a collapse of the distinction between the divine and the human--than Mormonism. But it requires somewhat greater perspicacity to recognize this same pathos at work under more conventional guises.

Most of us, for instance, rarely have cause to reflect that some of the variants of America's indigenous evangelical Christianity, especially of the "fundamentalist" sort, would have to be reckoned--if judged in the flail light of Christian history--positively bizarre. Yet many of its dominant and most reputable churches have--quite naturally and without any apparent attempt at novelty--evolved a Christianity so peculiar as to be practically without precedent: an entire theological and spiritual world, internally consistent, deeply satisfying to many, and nearly impossible to ground in the scriptural texts its inhabitants incessantly invoke. And Bloom deserves some (reluctant) praise for having seen this and having seen why it should be: the American myth of salvation, at its purest, is a myth of genuinely personal redemption, the escape of the soul from everything that might confine and repress it--sin, the world, and the devil, but also authority, tradition, and community--into an eternal, immediate, and indefectible relation with God, and it is to this myth, much more than the teachings of the New Testament, that some forms of American evangelical Christianity, especially fundamentalism, adhere.

This is obvious if one merely considers the central (and some might say only) spiritual event of fundamentalist faith and practice, that of being "born again" In the third chapter of John's Gospel, where this phrase is originally found, its context is mystagogical and clearly refers to baptism, but so far removed has it become from its original significance in many evangelical circles that it is now taken to mean a purely private conversion experience, occurring in that one unrepeatable authentic instant in which one accepts Jesus as one's "personal" lord and savior. Some fundamentalists even profess a doctrine of "perpetual security," which says that this conversion experience, if genuine (and therefrom hangs, for some, an agonizing uncertainty), is irreversible; like the initiation ceremonies of the ancient mystery cults, it is a magic threshold, across which--once it has been passed--one can never again retreat, no matter how wicked one may become. One could scarcely conceive of a more "gnostic" concept of redemption: liberation through private illumination, a spiritual security won only in the deepest soundings of the soul, a moment of awakening that lifts the soul above the darkness of this world into a realm of spiritual liberty beyond even the reach of the moral law, and an immediate intimacy with the divine whose medium is one of purest subjectivity.

This, at any rate, is one very, plausible way of approaching the matter of religion in America: to consider it primarily in its most distinctive of autochthonous forms, as a new gnostic adventure allied to a new eschatological mythology, which has transformed the original Puritan impulse of the upper English colonies into something like a genuinely new version of Christianity, a Christianity whose moderate expressions are, in the long historical view, amiably aberrant, but whose extreme expressions are frequently apocalyptic, enthusiast, and even--again--Dionysiac. One could argue, though, that it is an approach that, while not exactly unjust, is a mite perverse. After all, the exceptional nature of American piety consists not only in the opulence and prodigality of its innovations and deviations, but also in the extraordinary tenacity (as compared, at least, to the situation in other developed nations) with which the more established and traditional communities hold on to their own, generation after generation, and in some cases attract new converts: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Presbyterianism, Eastern Orthodoxy, not to mention the various kinds of synagogical Judaism.

And surely one should note that--however widespread and dynamic the (by no means uniform) phenomenon of evangelical Christianity may be--the Roman Catholic Church constitutes the single largest denomination in the United States and is growing at an impressive pace (in large part, obviously, because of Hispanic immigration). If fifty years hence, as demographic trends adumbrate, there are approximately 400 million Americans, fully a quarter may be Hispanic. Of these, one must immediately note, as many as a third may be evangelicals, but it seems clear that Catholicism will continue to increase not only in absolute numbers, but also relative to other Christian denominations. And, despite Harold Bloom's quaint asseveration that "most" American Catholics are gnostics (rather than, as is true, "very many"), this might perhaps mean that the more extreme species of revivalist individualism may actually relinquish some slight measure of its dominance of the American religious consciousness.

And, then again, perhaps not. The institutional reality of American Christianity has always been too diverse for simple characterizations, but at present this much is certain: the churches most likely to prosper greatly are those that make an appeal to--and an attempt to adopt the style of--an emotive individualism. Whether this means seeking to provide a sort of chaplaincy for small communities of earnest, socially conscientious liberals (as do many mainstream Protestant parishes and many Catholic parishes that might as well be mainstream Protestant), or promoting a more traditional--if largely undemanding--popular moralism, or promising more extreme forms of spiritual experience, or supplying a sort of light spiritual therapy, what is ultimately important is that institutional authority and creedal tradition not interpose themselves between the believer and his God. And as a general, moderate, and respectable Christian piety, has gradually lost its hold on the center of American society, this spiritual individualism has become more pronounced.

Nothing is more suggestive of the immense institutional transformations that may lie ahead for American Christianity than the growth of the so-called "megachurches" enormous urban "parishes" built more or less on the model of suburban shopping malls, accommodating sometimes more than 20,000 congregants, and often featuring such amenities as bookstores, weight rooms, food courts, playing fields, coffee houses, even hostelries and credit unions. Worship in such churches often takes the form of mass entertainments--popular music, video spectaculars, sermons of a distinctly theatrical nature--and constitutes only one among a host of available services. Obviously, the scale of such enterprises is possible only because the spiritual life to which they give refuge is essentially private: each worshipper alone amid a crowd of other worshippers, finding Christ in the emotional release that only so generously shared a solitude permits. When Christ is one's personal savior, sacramental mediation is unnecessary and pastoral authority nugatory; convenience, however, and social support remain vital.

I do not mean to ridicule these churches, incidentally: I am not competent to say whether they represent merely a final disintegration of American Christianity into an absurd variety of consumerism, or whether they might be taken as--within the constraints of contemporary culture--a kind of new medievalism, an attempt to gather small cities into the precincts of the church and to retreat into them from a world increasingly inimical to spiritual longing. For me they do, however, occasion three reflections: first, that no other developed nation could produce such churches, because no other developed nation suffers from so unrelenting a hunger for God; second, that the social medium, the "middle" that I have claimed American religion has always largely lacked is perhaps more profoundly absent now than it has ever been, so much so that many Christians find themselves forced to create alternative societies to shelter their faith; and, third, that evangelical individualism may in fact be becoming even more thoroughly the standard form of American Christianity.

Prognostication is of course always perilous, especially when one is considering a matter as thronged with imponderables as America's religious future. My tendency, though, is to assume that for some years to come America will continue to be abnormally devout for an industrialized society; in fact I suspect (for reasons that will presently become clear) that it might even become a great deal more devout. But there is also that "other America" that could scarcely be more energetically post-Christian, and it requires only a generation or two for a society to go from being generally pious to being all but ubiquitously infidel; in the age of mass communication and inescapable "information" when an idea or habit of thought or fashionable depravity does not have to crawl from pen to pen or printing press to printing press, these cultural metabolisms occur far more quickly than they used to do. The ease with which an ever more flamboyant and temerarious sexual antinomianism has migrated through the general culture is instructive, at the very least, of how pliant even the most redoubtable of moral prejudices can prove before the blandishments of modern ideas when those ideas are conveyed, principally, by television.

There is no reason to be confident that the rising and succeeding generations of Catholics and evangelicals, Hispanic or "Anglo" will not progressively yield to the attractions (whatever they are) of secularist modernity. Some estimates of the decline in church attendance over just the past dozen years put it as high as 20 percent (though neither the accuracy nor the meaning of that number is certain). And the young of college age profess markedly less faith than their elders, say some surveys (though this, if true, may be little more than callow defiance of parents or the affectation of intellectual and moral autonomy). The American habit of faith will probably run many of the new unbelievers to earth, of course, but the great age of disenchantment may yet dawn here as it has in other technologically and economically advanced societies.

What, however, I suspect will be the case is that--however playfully or balefully heathen the circumambient culture may continue to become--religion in America will remain at least as vigorous as it is now for at least a few decades. The two most influential and vital forms of Christianity, almost certainly, will be evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism (between which even now, however irreconcilable their ecclesiological principles, one can observe certain areas of intellectual and cultural rapprochement taking shape). Pentecostalism, moreover, is growing everywhere in the Christian world, and it is reasonable to suppose that more "charismatic" forms of both Catholicism and Protestantism will increasingly flourish here as well.

Around these two massive realities, smaller Protestant denominations of a markedly conservative complexion may remain relatively stable, I would imagine, so long as they remain conservative. Eastern Orthodoxy--along with the other ancient Eastern Churches, the most intransigently immune of Christian communities to the lure of change--has enjoyed something of a golden age of conversions over the past three decades, especially from Protestant denominations. Though it has long been seen as a predominantly "ethnic preserve" for Greeks, Russians, Serbs, Arabs, etc., Orthodoxy will probably continue to grow from outside its "natural" constituency, and may in a few generations come to Be dominated in this country by communicants with no ethnic ties to the tradition.

Faiths other than Christianity will in all likelihood, even as their total numbers increase, decline in their percentage of the population (with the possible exception of Mormonism). The cultural and even religious influence of Judaism on America society will persist, one assumes, but in this regard it will be practically unique. Certainly nothing like the constant and volatile growth of Islam in Europe is likely here in the near term; despite occasional claims to the contrary, there are probably fewer than two million American Muslims; the majority of American Arabs are Christian, and our immigrants come principally from cultures where Islam is a small presence at best.

Where, among Christian congregations, it seems obvious to me that there will be no conspicuous growth, and indeed a great deal of diminution, is among the more liberal of the mainstream Protestant denominations. As much attention as is given in the press to the "lively" debates underway in many of the Protestant churches over such things as sexual morality, or to the New Hampshire Episcopal church's elevation of the adulterous and actively homosexual Gene Robinson to its episcopacy, these remain matters of concern to communities so minuscule by comparison to the larger religious realities of American culture, and so clearly destined for further fragmentation and tabescence, that it is inconceivable that they could be very relevant to the future shape of American religion.

Things like the Gene Robinson affair may, of course, be genuinely instructive regarding certain shifts in the larger society, especially in certain regions of the country. But, when one considers the most liberal forms of mainstream American Protestantism, it is not even obvious that one is any longer dealing with religion at all, except in a formal sense. Certainly they exhibit very few recognizable features of a living faith (such as a reluctance to make up their beliefs as they go along), and it is difficult to see many of their "bolder" gestures of accommodation as amounting to anything more than judicious preparations for a final obsolescence. The future of American religion in the main, whatever it is, lies almost certainly elsewhere.

In saying this, I am not, I hasten to add, attempting to be either cavalier or contemptuous. My judgments are prompted simply by two immense sets of statistical fact: those concerning birthrates and those concerning immigration. As for the former, I merely observe that theologically and morally conservative believers tend to have more children. Conservative American Christians reproduce at a far greater rate than their liberal brethren and at an enormously higher rate than secularized America; the extraordinary growth of traditionalist Christian communities in recent decades is something that has been accomplished not only by indefatigable evangelization, but by the ancient and infallible methods of lawful conjugation and due fruition.

More importantly, though, the form that American religion will take in coming years is increasingly dictated by the demographic influx from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. In his indispensable book The Next Christendom (2002), Philip Jenkins remarks that the effect of mass immigration from the global South and Pacific East to the United States in recent years has been, in fact, to make America a more Christian nation. Bald the Christianity that is being imported from these parts of the world is, to a great extent, very conservative in its most basic moral precepts and metaphysical presuppositions. And, throughout the developing world, the Christianity that is growing most exuberantly (with, as Jenkins demonstrates, a rapidity that beggars the imagination) is in many cases marked by the New Testament charisms: prophecy, exorcisms, glossolalia, visions, miraculous healings. These are not things, one must make clear, confined only to small, sectarian communities. A Ugandan Catholic priest of my acquaintance has claimed to me--with obviously some hyperbole--that all African Christianity is charismatic to one degree or another. And the effect of Pentecostalism's success on the worship of Catholic congregations in places like the Philippines and Brazil is well documented.

All of which tends to make rather hilarious a figure like John Spong, the quondam Episcopal bishop of Newark. It was Spong who, in 1998, produced an hysterical screed of a book, pompously entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die, that--in arguing for a "new Christianity;" unburdened by such cumbrous appurtenances as, for instance, God--succeeded only in making audible the protracted death rattle of a moribund church. It was Spong also who, that same year, appalled that African bishops at the Lambeth Conference had defeated movements towards an official Anglican approbation of homosexuality, delivered himself of a fiercely petulant diatribe almost touching in its unreflective racism; these Africans, he declared (all of whom were far better scholars and linguists than he, as it happens), had only recently slouched their way out of animism, and so were susceptible to "religious extremism" and "very superstitious" forms of Christianity.

Now, admittedly, Spong is a notorious simpleton, whose special combination of emotional instability and intellectual fatuity leaves him in a condition rather like chronic delirium tremens; so it is not surprising that, on being somewhat unceremoniously roused from the parochial midden on which he had been contentedly reclining, his reaction should be puerile and vicious; but his perplexity and rage were genuine and understandable. Many within the languishing denominations of the affluent North, until they are similarly shaken from the slumber of their ignorance, are simply unprepared for the truth that, in the century ahead, Christianity will not only expand mightily, but will also increasingly be dominated by believers whose understanding of engagement with the non-Christian or post-Christian world is likely to be one not of accommodation, compromise, or even necessarily coexistence, but of spiritual warfare. This is, in many ways, an "ancient" Christianity. As immigration from the developing world continues, it will almost certainly find itself most at home in "ancient" America. (But this suggests that my earlier approach to my topic was better after all.)

The irony that attaches to these reflections is that many of the forms of Christianity entering America from the developing world are in a sense merely coming home. The Christian movements that have had the most prodigious success in Asia and the global South are arguably those that were born here and then sent abroad: revivalist evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, even the charismatic movement within Catholicism and certain of the mainstream Protestant churches. Indeed, when one considers the influence American Christianity has had on the evolution of Christianity in the wider world, and considers also the effect of America's popular culture on the evolution of secular culture everywhere, one might almost conclude that America's great central and defining tension--between, as I have said, extreme forms of antiquity and modernity--has somehow reached out to draw the world into itself.

And it is a tension that--for want of that precious medium, civilization--looks likely to increase, for our extremes are becoming very extreme indeed: a modernity drained of any of the bright refinements and moral ambitions of Enlightenment reason or humanist idealism, reduced to a "high" culture of insipid ethical authoritarianism and a low culture consisting in dreary hedonism (without a hint of healthy Rabelaisian festivity), ever more explicit and repetitive celebrations of violence, sartorial and sexual slovenliness, atrocious music, and an idyllic emancipation from the fetters of literacy or (in fact) articulacy; and an antiquity of real and dynamic power, but largely uncontrolled by any mediating forces of order, stability, unity, or calm. To the dispassionate observer, there might be something exhilarating in the spectacle: the grand titanic struggle--within the very heart of their homeland--between a secular culture of militant vanity and incorruptible coarseness and a Christian culture of often purely experientialist ardor.

More prosaically speaking, though, a genuine civil religious struggle may well mark the coming decades, and how it will play out is hard to say. For the demographic reasons to which I have already adverted, as much as the social history of the United States, America is the one place in the Western world where one could conceivably see the inexorable advance of late modernity, somewhat falter, or even the cultural power of the Christian global South establish something of a Northern redoubt. Ultimately, however, our strident secularity may triumph, and with it all the pathologies of cultural exhaustion. Perhaps not only will the courts, and educational establishment, and ACLU, and all the other leal servants of a constitutional principle that does not actually exist, succeed in purging the last traces of Christian belief from our licit social grammar, but we may all finally, by forces of persuasion impossible to foresee, be conducted out of the darkness of our immemorial superstitions, nationalisms, moral prejudices, and retrograde loyalties into the radiant and pure universe of the International Criminal Court, reproductive choice, and the Turner Prize. Or some kind of uncomfortable but equable balance might continue to be struck between our extremes, under the sheltering pavilion of material satisfaction and narcissist individualism. But I prefer to think otherwise, and not only because "spiritual warfare" is more interesting to write about than bland social concord.

A culture--a civilization--is only as great as the religious ideas that animate it; the magnitude of a people's cultural achievements is determined by the height of its spiritual aspirations. One need only turn one's gaze back to the frozen mires and fetid marshes of modern Europe, where once the greatest of human civilizations resided, to grasp how devastating and omnivorous a power metaphysical boredom is. The eye of faith presumes to see something miraculous within the ordinariness of the moment, mysterious hints of an intelligible order calling out for translation into artifacts, institutions, ideas, and great deeds, but boredom's disenchantment renders the imagination inert and desire torpid.

This claim is of course completely at variance with the Enlightenment mythology of modern secularism: that faith confined mankind within an incurious intellectual infancy, from which it has only lately been liberated to pursue the adult adventure of self-perfection; that the lineaments of all reality are clear and precise, and available to disinterested rationality and its powers of representation; that moral truth is not only something upon which all reasonable persons can agree, but also something that, in being grasped, is immediately compelling; that human nature, when measured only by itself, will of course advance towards higher expressions of life rather than retreat into the insipid self-indulgence of the last men or into mere brutish lawlessness; that reason can order society best only when all supernaturalism has been banished from its deliberations; and so on (and, in Wellington's words, if you believe that, you will believe anything).

Even if, however, one does not share My view that this entire mythology is an immense banality, and that modernity as a whole has resulted not in man's emergence into maturity, but in a degrading descent into a second childhood, still one must acknowledge that all the colossal creativity of modern culture taken together is manifestly unable to rise above a certain level of aesthetic or spiritual accomplishment (despite the greatness of certain individual achievements). And even if one has so little acquaintance with religious phenomena as to imagine that there are no moments of revelation, and that behind the surface of things there move no massive shapes that the religious consciousness dimly descries and imperfectly limns, and that in short religion is nothing but a gigantic feat of willful imagination, one must still grant that it is an engagement of, precisely, will and imagination, from which springs a magnificent profusion of cultural forms.

Europe may now be its own mausoleum, but once, under the golden canopy of an infinite aspiration--the God-man--the noblest of human worlds took shape: Hagia Sophia, Chartres, Rouen, and il Duomo; Giotto and Michelangelo; Palestrina and Bach; Dante and Shakespeare; Ronsard and Herbert; institutions that endured, economies that prospered, laws that worked justice, hypocrisies but also a cultural conscience that never forgot to hate them; and the elevation of charity above all other virtues.

As an unapologetic Christian reactionary, suffering from a romantic devotion to the vanished Christian order, and to all the marvels that flowed from its glorious synthesis of Judaic and Hellenic genius, I confess I often detest American religion (no doubt superciliously) as something formless, vulgar, saccharine, idolatrous, or--to intrude theology--heretical; I continue to delude myself that Europe's spiritual patrimony need not have been squandered had it been more duly cherished and reverently guarded. At the same time, as something of an American chauvinist, I cannot help but see in our often absurd and sometimes barbarous spiritual and social ferment something infinitely preferable to the defatigation of vision, wisdom, and moral fortitude that is the evident condition of the post-Christian West. There may not be much hope that anything worth dignifying with the term "civilization" will ever emerge from American culture--but, then again, where religious life persists there are always possibilities.

And, if nothing else, there is such a thing as moral civilization, and that, I often think, is nowhere more advanced than among the sort of persons whose beliefs will always be a scandal to the John Spongs of the world. American religion is poor in palpable splendors, true, but it is often difficult not to be amazed at, say, the virtues that southern evangelical culture is able to instill and preserve amid the wreck of modern civility and conscience: the graciousness of true hospitality; the spontaneous generosity that prompts evangelicals (even those of small substance) to donate so great a portion of their wealth to charitable relief for the developing world; the haunting consciousness of sin, righteousness, and redemption that often even the most brutal of men cannot escape and that can ennoble their lives with the dignity of repentance; a moral imagination capable of a belief in real "rebirth" (not merely "reform") and the power frequently to bring it to pass. A culture capable of such things--and of the surrender of faith necessary to sustain them--is something rare and delightful, which cannot be recovered once it is lost.

If indeed American religion was born out of the exhaustion of one set of mediating cultural and institutional structures and has yet to find any to take their place; and if American secularism was born out of the decadence of European civilization and has so far succeeded only at producing a new kind of savagery; and if the two are destined to continue to struggle for the soul of the nation, it is obvious where the sympathies of anyone anxious about the survival or even recrudescence of Western civilization should lie. I am not always entirely convinced that irreligious cultural conservatives have an unquestioned right to lament the general decline around them, as in ungenerous moments I tend to see them as its tacit accomplices, whose devotion to the past I suspect of having more the character of nostalgia than commitment; but I should think such persons would not be indifferent to religion.

For, if we succumb to post-Christian modernity, and the limits of its vision, what then? Most of us will surrender to a passive decay of will and aspiration, perhaps, find fewer reasons to resist as government insinuates itself into the little liberties of the family, continue to seek out hitherto unsuspected insensitivities to denounce and prejudices to extirpate, allow morality to give way to sentimentality; the impetuous among us will attempt to enjoy Balzac, or take up herb gardening, or discover "issues"; a few dilettantish amoralists will ascertain that everything is permitted and dabble in bestiality or cannibalism; the rest of us will mostly watch television; crime rates will rise more steeply and birth rates fall more precipitously; being the "last men," we shall think ourselves at the end of history; an occasional sense of the pointlessness of it all will induce in us a certain morose feeling of impotence (but what can one do?); and, in short, we shall become Europeans (but without the vestiges of the old civilization ranged about us to soothe our despondency).

Surely we can hope for a nobler fate. Better the world of Appalachian snake handlers, mass revivals, Hispanic Pentecostals, charismatic Catholics, and millenarian evangelicals (even the gnostics among them); better a disembodied, violent, and even Dionysiac hunger for God than a dispirited and eviscerate capitulation before material reality; and much better a general atmosphere of earnest, if sometimes unsophisticated, faith.

My "epiphany" of twenty years ago, on the rail platform in England, was undoubtedly lacking in a certain balance, but the intuition that lay behind it was correct: that material circumstances (unless they are absolutely crushing) possess only such gravity or levity as one's interpretation of them; and how one interprets them is determined not merely by one's personal psychology, but by the cultural element in which they subsist. The almost luxuriant squalor of that railway station, had I found myself confronted by it in some corner of America, might have seemed a bleak disfigurement of the greater world in which I lived; it might even have struck me as depressingly emblematic of the profound hideousness of late industrial society and its inevitable utilitarian minimalism, but I do not believe it would have seemed to me the dark mystical epitome of a nation's soul.

Allowing for all the peculiarities of personal temperament, and for the special pathos that homesickness can induce, my reaction to my miserable surroundings was a real--if inevitably subjective--awakening to a larger cultural and spiritual truth. Either the material order is the whole of being, wherein all transcendence is an illusion, or it is the phenomenal surface--mysterious, beautiful, terrible, harsh, and haunting--of a world of living spirits. That the former view is philosophically incoherent is something of which I am convinced; even if one cannot share that conviction, however, one should still be able to recognize that it is only the latter view that has ever had the power--over centuries and in every realm of human accomplishment--to summon desire beyond the boring limits marked by mortality, to endow the will with constancy, and purpose, and to shape imagination towards ends that should not be possible within the narrow economies of the flesh.

In any event, whatever one makes of American religion--its genially odd individualism, or its often ponderous stolidity, or its lunatic extremism, or its prodigies of kitsch, or its sometimes unseemly servility to a national mythology, or simply its unostentatious pertinacity--it is as well to realize that it is far more in harmony with the general condition of humanity throughout history than are the preposterous superstitions of secular reason or the vile ephemeralities of post-Christian popular culture. It is something alive and striving, which has the power to shelter innumerable natural virtues under its promises of supernatural grace. Most importantly, its strength and vitality portend something that might just survive the self-consuming culture of disenchantment; for, while it is possible that modernity may not have very much of a future, antiquity may very well prove deathless.