Revolutionism and our Secular Age

What if unbelief is a social ill? Would we have the courage to name it? And hope otherwise?
Appears in Fall 2016 Issue: Join the Anti-Revolutionary Party
September 1st, 2016

Let me get right to my thesis, gauche as it is: our penchant for revolutionary reconstruction of society is directly proportionate to the secularization of society. Revolution does not eviscerate our religious passions; it absorbs and redirects them. We run to the barricades when we run away from God.

To the extent that we imagine ourselves inhabiting a closed universe, we are prone to treat society as a blank slate for our recreation. Because if we really live on the flattened plain of what Charles Taylor calls "the immanent frame," then we're all we've got. The universe depends on us and our enlightenment, our technological prowess, our moral rectitude, our insight into "the way things are" and the way they ought to be. So get out of the way: we've got work to do and a world to save. Don't bother us with history or tradition or your heavenly blueprints for society. And don't tell us to be patient or humble or moderate. You can either stay in the reactionary backwaters of resistance or join the revolutionary forces on the "right side" of history.

When the Revolution paves paradise, we end up with parking lots and are told they're good for us.

And lest you miss the uncomfortable point implicit in this thesis, let me make it explicit: the revolutionism in the water of late modern liberal society is, I'm suggesting, the fruit of what, in an earlier age, we would have called "unbelief."

This is the flip side of the kind of descriptive account of secularization that Charles Taylor has provided in A Secular Age—an account that I have largely endorsed in my commentary on Taylor, How (Not) To Be Secular. But explanation is not equivalent to endorsement. It is one thing to descriptively diagnose "what time it is" (i.e., a secular age), recognizing the complexities and realities of the historical moment in which we find ourselves as an act of intellectual responsibility. It doesn't do any good to just wish away these realities, or stick our heads in the sand and nostalgically long for some return to a premodern consensus.

But responsibly recognizing what time it is doesn't preclude a forthright and radical critique of the social imaginary we've settled for. One can descriptively recognize the shift in plausibility conditions characteristic of our secular age and yet normatively critique the same, pointing out to our neighbours the dangers and deficiencies of the particular, contingent deal we've brokered with history.

On the one hand, my argument is directed at revolutionary agendas on both the left and the right, whether the right-leaning mythologies of "creative destruction" or the left-leaning ideologies of progress. The plea on this front is basically Burkean caution: too often our projects that raze existing structures and "rationally" rebuild from scratch end up trying to demolish the legacies and institutions that give life. Rightly ardent to undo injustices and systemic inequalities, our revolutionary programs enact a scorched-earth social "renewal" that cannot tolerate any vestiges of what has gone before. It's like being angry you've moved into an Arts and Crafts home so you gut it in order to re-create it with a pristine Scandinavian palette. Any hint of quarter-sawn oak or stained glass is going to be an offence.

the features of society that our technocracy wants to "fix" are, in fact, the things that make us human.

And so, on a broader social level, our revolutionary fervour replays the horrors of 1970s urban "renewal" that pitted Jane Jacobs's defence of place and history against Robert Moses's revolutionary "creative destruction" that wanted to railroad concrete expressways through living, breathing neighbourhoods. We're more like Moses than we realize. Informed by our rational, technocratic "ideals" we flatten neighbourhoods, displace traditional communities, erect brutalist "machines for living," and disdainfully dismiss people who don't want to live in the alleged paradise we've created. But now we do it for an entire society, taking this same approach to education, the family, even the church. When the Revolution paves paradise, we end up with parking lots and are told they're good for us.

It's in this way that revolutionism ends up being a kind of anti-humanism, as if man is made for the revolution rather than the revolution for man. Just as Jacobs resisted Moses's idealism by pointing out all the resources for thriving embedded in the communities he wanted to bulldoze, so we need a Jane Jacobs of social renewal more broadly, pointing out that the features of society that our technocracy wants to "fix" are, in fact, the things that make us human.

Unbelief as a Social Disease

It should be no surprise that I'm pushing back on what I'm calling Revolutionism, liberalism's secularized, naturalized confidence as a kind of "realized eschatology"—a movement that thinks itself the very embodiment of kingdom come. But on the other hand, I'd like my thesis to offend on an equal opportunity basis. I hope to equally provoke those strains of Christian, particularly Neocalvinist, social thought that have effectively accepted the naturalized terms of Revolutionism. While we often rightly argue for the "good of politics" to encourage Christian participation in the public square, we also tend to chastise any attempts to "Christianize" public life as lapsing into a dreaded "Constantinianism." Little by little we've been acclimated to the unbelief that characterizes secular modernity and have accepted it as the default of social and political life. And insofar as we Christians still want to participate in that public life, we have settled for arguing that belief should still be permitted instead of challenging unbelief. We have effectively accepted the naturalization of political life as the price of admission to public discourse and thereby given up our Anti-Revolutionary heritage.

But what if unbelief is precisely the problem? What if it is precisely the secularization and naturalization of our political life that ends up absolutizing it, engendering an intolerance and reign of terror for any who violate its orthodoxy? A society that forgets it is not ultimate is by nature the most prone to injustice. In that respect, unbelief is not a protection from holy wars—it is exposure to holy wars by other means.

unbelief is not a protection from holy wars—it is exposure to holy wars by other means.

This is why I think we do well to reacquaint ourselves with the unapologetic forthrightness of Groen van Prinsterer in tracing the political ills of society to unbelief (even if there are also other factors). "Atheism in religion and radicalism in politics," he points out his lectures published as Unbelief and Revolution, "are not only not the exaggeration, misuse or distortion, but in fact the consistent and faithful application of a principle which sets aside the God of Revelation in favour of the supremacy of reason." At the heart of this Revolutionary standpoint (direction) is the sovereignty of man, independent of the sovereignty of God—so how likely is it that such a society is going to listen to prattle about "sphere sovereignty" if the society's foundation is a disenchanted immanence in which man is the last sovereign standing? Indeed, as Groen rightly notes, "the Revolution doctrine is the Religion, as it were, of unbelief."

Groen also presciently anticipates why unbelief will become so intolerant of belief.

To deny the truth is also of necessity to despise and to hate actively—not just philosophically, but militantly—everything that is adjudged false and therefore evil. And the Gospel and Christian belief are certainly false and evil from the viewpoint of the unbelieving philosophy. Once denied, revealed truths are nefarious superstitions, the worst of the impediments blocking the road to enlightenment and self-perfection. Wherever the lie triumphs, it must hate every element of the truth that still remains. Even deism, however diluted, is an offense to an atheist. In his estimation, whoever believes in a God, of whatever description, is a bigoted proponent of childish and harmful ideas.

My concern is that too much Christian public theology buys into Revolutionism without realizing it, accepting the default of unbelief as if it were merely the standpoint of "natural" political life—as if "earthly" life were functionally synonymous with unbelief. And so we've let the Revolution co-opt sphere sovereignty by making the "limitation" of the state synonymous with its naturalization—as if "unbelieving" political life were functionally equivalent to recognizing the distinction between church and state.

What if unbelief is, in fact, the most significant barrier to justice in politics?

But emphasizing sphere sovereignty with respect to the state does not "naturalize" it; nor does recognizing the "limits" of the state encase it within the merely natural or "earthly." Distinguishing the state from the church doesn't nullify the state's creaturely calling, nor does it insulate it from the claims and insights of special revelation. What if unbelief is, in fact, the most significant barrier to justice in politics? What if the acceptance of a disenchanted world has encased us in a claustrophobic "immanent frame" that also cuts us off from the sources we need to live well together in the midst of religious diversity and a plurality of worldviews? In that case, limiting ourselves to a "political" truth sequestered from revelational insight is not the path to justice but instead a reinforcement of the root problem.

We do well to recall that, at the heart of Groen van Prinsterer's project, revolutionary unbelief is not just a bug in an otherwise functioning system; it is the root dysfunction. While we rightly look for little victories and faithful compromises, Groen cautions: don't confuse that with true reform. Commenting on some of the scaled-down endeavours of his own time, he notes: "Retaining the root of the evil precludes a restoration which is truly radical, that is to say, which derives from a different root." In a stirring passage he goes on to lament the timid "small potatoes" of Christian public endeavours: "What have we done, and what are we doing? Nothing. We eliminate ourselves. We render ourselves insignificant.

Because we do not aspire to anything higher, we are a coterie in the church and conformists or outcasts in the state." In the face of unbelieving consensus, we scale down our endeavours to what we think will be acceptable on "natural" terms and end up with even less.

Christianity Makes Good Liberals

Trust me: I realize how quixotic this must sound in our current climate. Isn't the best "political" option for Christians to give up on politics and set up alternative monastic communities? Or shouldn't we follow the natural lawyers and scale back to what natural, unaided human reason can argue for? Or shouldn't we just settle for civility in the public square? Why argue that Christians should be even more unapologetically Christian in political discourse at just the moment that Western liberal democracies are rife with revolutionary, anti-religious zeal? Why be even more robustly Christian in our public pronouncements when the believability of Christianity is at its nadir and is seen as synonymous with intolerance?

What if it turns out that it's Christianity that makes good liberals?

Well, what if it turns out that only a Judeo- Christian theism can actually underwrite toleration? What if we're also reaching a moment when naturalized liberalism is finding that it lacks the moral sources for what it wants? What if it turns out that it's Christianity that makes good liberals?

This, I think, is one of Jeffrey Stout's conclusions— to his own surprise!—in Blessed Are the Organized. Whereas in Democracy and Tradition he worried that Christians like MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and Milbank were encouraging Christian to exile themselves from democratic politics, in Blessed Are the Organized he recognizes the role religious congregations play in the grassroots democracy he extols. Commenting on the role of religious communities in the Industrial Areas Foundation, the confederation of community organizations founded by Saul Alinsky, Stout observes: "The number of synagogues, mosques, schools, and labor unions involved in IAF is growing, and organizers hope to hasten this trend. Still, if one subtracted the churches from IAF and other similar organizing networks, then grassroots democracy in the United States would come to very little."

Recognizing (and documenting) that the way Christian worship forms citizens for pluralism might be a way to out-narrate the religion-ispoison narrative, showing that it is in fact Christianity (and perhaps religious communities more broadly) that do the work of forming citizens for common life and the public good. The irony would be that Christianity would remind society how to be (classically) liberal. That's not meant to instrumentalize Christian formation—as if the point of Christianity were to make good citizens—but rather to recognize a kind of "by-product" that flows from it: the gospel is how we learn to be human and the church is where we learn what a polis should look like. Thus the sort of "influence" we desire is not merely on the order of "political" truth, but in opening up the political to the transcendent, "directional" truth of the gospel, including the revelation of a risen, ascended King.

In this respect, there might also be a legitimate place for a Groen van Prinsterer–like critique of the way unbelief engenders social configurations that by nature end up absolutizing one "direction" in ways that are intolerant, arrogant, and impatient. In that sense, an affirmation of transcendence might (might!) be a condition for the dispositions that liberalism wants and that a "confident pluralism" needs—which would challenge the default naturalism and secularism of society and the state, and call society toward a better democracy, a better pluralism.

This was the boldness of Groen van Prinsterer's proposal: "When I set my sights on a true restoration," he says, "my concern is not a return to obsolete forms, or a sudden inversion of the social order, or a disregard for the rights of all in the interest of a party. Suggestions of that sort I would condemn as being consistent with the Revolution spirit. But," he adds, "instructed and guided by experience and by the everlasting Word of Revelation, I maintain the immutability of truths the forsaking of which has led to those whose false ideas whose impotence and perniciousness is becoming clearer every day. The real need of our time is the application, modified in accordance with circumstance, of Christian constitutional law."

But even in the late nineteenth century, Groen van Prinsterer realized that his agenda could be dismissed as wishful thinking. The societal uptake of what he was suggesting seemed unlikely (to put it mildly). And so he asks the obvious question: "Is such an application possible?"

I hang hope on Groen's response to his own question: "Why not?" he asks. Groen refuses any sort of circumstantial despair, and refuses to tack the sails of hope to the winds of culture. Instead, his hope and goals are pegged to the winds of the Spirit: "Even in unfavourable circumstances, however, one can witness to the truth; and this continuous witness itself is already a real application and a powerful practice. To preach justice while injustice continues is not superfluous; and the words of him who stands up to the omnipotent tyrant are not lost because he himself suffers the consequences of his commendable candour."

We can learn a lot from Groen van Prinsterer's unapologetic witness and undiminished hope. Indeed, we should be emulating it. Our hope is not indexed to what seems likely in the world around us. In one of his early stories, John Updike observes: "In Manhattan, Christianity is so feeble its future seems before it." Why not? Who's to say? History is neither a straight line of socalled progress nor an inevitable decline. The Spirit blows where it will, and we might be surprised to find a society that is more open to the gospel precisely if and because it endures the claustrophobic intolerance of a "secular" society.


James K.A. Smith is editor-in-chief of Comment and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. His latest book is, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos).


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