Interesting reflections on the social and cultural milieu that we find ourselves in -- in this book review/essay by Brad East, Holy Ambivalence, in Los Angeles Review of Books. And what it means to be the people of God in the midst of these times. His question, What to do about Liberalism?
There are four basic approaches. First, retrenchment: liberalism has problems like anything else, but it’s nothing a little more liberalism can’t fix. Second, ambivalence: liberalism has endemic, insoluble problems, but it’s what we’ve got, and the status quo, however bad, is better than any known alternative and thus worth ameliorating in whatever small ways we can. Third, rejection: liberalism is an abject failure, unworthy of being propped up any longer, though admittedly there is no ready-made substitute for it. Fourth, replacement: liberalism has reached its end, and there are far more just political forms available if only we would have the courage to open ourselves to radical change
In short: “Liberalism has failed.” But “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” Indeed, “the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success. To call for the cures of liberalism’s ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire.”
Apart from its effects, what is most insidious about liberalism is the way it hides itself as an ideology. It is so deeply interwoven with our life and thought that it has become the air we breathe, the water we swim in, the operating system we take for granted — until the whole system crashes. We are, Deneen argues, in a version of Plato’s cave, so mesmerized by the movie-set backdrops on the walls that we don’t realize they are two-dimensional projections. We need to get out, to seek the light. We need to expose our condition for what it is.
Liberalism was sold as a rescue from the state of nature, in which isolated individuals languished at war with others to secure their interests. But no such state ever existed, nor its lonely human protagonist — until liberalism’s triumph, that is. The liberal state created the subject it purported to save.
East then examines James K A Smith's recent, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, where ensues a discussion about how Christians should conduct themselves in our interactions with the public space.
We are first of all, not thinking or believing creatures, but desiring animals. And what we love above all we worship. Such worship is neither individualistic nor disembodied but enacted in corporate rituals of ultimate concern. These practices habituate us, forming and redirecting our loves to objects that constitute visions of the good, of what it means to flourish as human beings. Such routines of the body do most of their work at an unconscious level; the mind follows the heart, and the heart directs the body, which reciprocates in kind.
Smith's classic illustration of this (from earlier works) is the shopping mall; our weekly trips habituate us to consumption; and the vicarious habits of screen-viewing (whether FB, gaming, TV or Netflix)...
Smith’s answer is threefold. First, the church is called and sent by God into the world to love its neighbors, serve the common good, and bear witness to the way of Jesus. So there is no avoiding the encounter, because it is divinely mandated. Second, the church’s own liturgical practices are the heart of its life for a reason: centered on the worship of God, who alone is worthy of it, they have the power, through God’s own action, to form, equip, and commission believers for faithful life and witness in society. Their loves properly ordered, Christians are empowered by the sacramental practices of the local worshiping community to resist the liturgical capture of the state — though this contest of loves ought to be made explicit, the better to know where the danger lies.
That's what I have appreciated about Smith's suggestions over the years -- the church needs to proactively provide an alternative formation to what we are already formed by -- the social and cultural milieu in which we swim/navigate each day.
In sum: Worship as “the civics of the city of God”; mission as the motivating force for participating in the earthly city; holy ambivalence as the character of such participation; hope in the heavenly city as the tether suspending its citizens here below, as they await the return of the King.
That's the phrase that caught my attention -- holy ambivalence. I've voted on the left side of the political spectrum all my adult life, and will probably continue so. There is just as much "disconnect" from a Christian worldview in conservative politics as there is in liberal politics, so I choose the vision that "up-front" says we should care for the vulnerable among us. But my personal stance is one of ambivalence -- there is no perfect political system conjured by human beings. In the end it is how we conduct our personal lives and the community of people we do that with, that makes any real differences.
I have found the understanding of human psychology and sociology (the human condition) that Christian Scriptures describe to be very accurate in my own experience. I find the loving, sacrificial, others-orientation of the Jesus story, as a response to the human condition, to be both challenging and transformative. And "in the meantime" (as we await the better world we all desire), we are called, as the church, to provide an alternative formation -- habits and practices consistent with the notion that God, who is Other, needs to hold our attention and shape our attitudes and behaviours better than we have been managing.
East concludes his review and reflections with:
But whatever strategies we devise, whoever comes our way, the waiting will continue. Smith, with Augustine, is therefore right to hallow patience as the church’s central political virtue; right to remember that Christian hope has no earthly term. There is no living beyond one’s time: perseverance does not mean impatience. Even liberalism can be endured.