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Getting Over “Fall” Narratives

So back in February, Peter Leithart responded to my response on his essay on Protestants and writing. I meant to respond again, but never did. It’s probably good though, because the conversation needs to be bigger than just any one article– and certainly bigger than personalities. I really did think his original essay shined a light on intellectual problems that have beset a very large group of thinkers. His response in February provides another occasion to zoom out and talk about them, and the main issue that I’d like to talk about is the concept of the “Fall” narrative.

The “Fall” narrative precedes the “Road Not Taken” one that Mark Lilla pointed out. Before you can imagine the alternative possibilities, you have to first firmly believe that a great historical disaster has occurred. The wrong “road” was taken, and many of the great possibilities have thus been lost. Now don’t get me wrong. Everybody does this. For the pagan perennialist sorts, the great fall was when Judea-Christian religion conquered the great world-wide “oneness” of ancestral-traditional religions. For certain arch-Protestants, the fall happened when “Greek” thought invaded the “Hebraic” early Christian Church. For anabaptist-ish folks, the fall happened when Constantine took over the church. For classic Lutherans, it was with the Babylonian Captivity of the Church under the Papacy. For postmodern-paleoconservatives everything is Scotus’ fault. For “Old School” Presbyterians, we can blame Finney. Schaeffer blamed the Renaissance. Conservatives blame Marx or the Civil War or Truman or FDR. For some of us at TCI, it’s all Van Til’s fault (see, I can be self-critical!). Whatever the application, the “Fall” narrative is pretty common.

Dr. Leithart had this to say in relation to this:

Steven says my essay is a piece of nostalgia, a “Road Not Taken” story, in line with Brad Gregory, MacIntyre and Weaver. I do regard many aspects of the contemporary world negatively; as, truth be told, does Steven, who admits “there is a real crisis in the modern world of arts, letters, and religion,” an opinion evident in his list of Protestant writers, which ends in the nineteenth century. But to regard my essay as nostalgic misses my point – also MacIntyre’s, I think. There is perhaps a moment of nostalgia, but the aim is relativization. It’s the maneuver of the nouvelle theologie, which recovered a patristic and early medieval past to mount critiques of counter-Reformation neo-Thomism and juridical conceptions of the church; it’s the move of medievalist postmoderns, who reach back to pre-modernity not to dwell in the past but to relativize the seemingly impregnable modern present. “Once there was no secular,” says John Milbank, in order to demonstrate that “secularity” is a contingent historical formation, and therefore not woven into the fabric of things, and therefore challengeable. All these use the past to relativize the present in the interests of fresh directions for the future. I don’t know, though, whether Steven will find relativization more congenial than nostalgia.

This paragraph also does a nice job of highlighting that our conversation is not between two people, but, in fact, a part of a larger one that’s been going on for a long time–the Nouvelle Theologie, MacIntyre, and we could add now Brad Gregory and a host of others. Because of the (very) real problems of modernity, we/they look back in order to then move forward. And yes, there is common ground here between Dr. Leithart and his influences and the vision of TCI. After all, we used that snazzy word “ressourcement” in some of our own marketing, and we tried to look back to the Irenic Theologians as our inspiration. We have self-applied quasi-brand names as much as anyone else.

But one thing that we have tried to do is apply the same sort of criticism of the present to the past as well. This is what I was getting at when I criticized nostalgia. We look to the past, but we look to the past with the understanding that it is precisely “the democracy of the dead,” with all that comes with such a notion. The past was made up of men, with a nature like ours, and even the heroes made mistakes. Further, many “turning points” of history were not seen as turning points at the time, and many of the choices made at those points were not made with any conscious eye towards the arch of history. They were pragmatic, accidental, or from true rational conviction. And our general belief here at TCI is that the present is still like the past in that way, even if we over-analyze things and zoom in on our own role in history. Really, after all of the ink is spilled, we are doing the same thing folks have always done, for good or for bad.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t better or worse moments or that there weren’t great catastrophes. There are and there were. It just means that the “relativization” needs to be applied equally in all directions.

It also means we need to be very careful with our history. I began my emphasis on studying history because I was interested in a certain “Fall” narrative. I wanted to see the “Fall” for myself, and so I looked to the sources. But I didn’t find it. I found a lot of contradictory evidence and new “problems” that I hadn’t been aware of before. And along the way, I also found tools for doing history, especially scholars like Richard Muller, Michel Barnes, and Lewis Ayres (the former is doing very different historical work than the latter two, of course), and I saw common methodological fallacies being exposed. One of the most significant ones was the “big story” approach itself. As Dr. Michel Barnes explains, “the confidence to speak in architectonic narrative forms reflects a general sense that details matter less than perspective, that historical facts are only epiphenomena of an architectonic paradigm or hermeneutic, so that a sufficient knowledge of ‘facts’ can be acquired solely through the practice of a hermeneutical or an ideological critique in itself, since any ‘fact’ can itself be reduced to an expression or the symptom of a hermeneutic or ideology.” This is a big problem, and it happens everywhere.

Dr. Wayne Hankey puts things in even more combative terms when he tears apart “Radical Orthodoxy,” a group with a similar “Fall” narrative. He says that they are lying. Whether they are actually lying or simply trading in bad history would depend upon their motives, motives that we do not possess. Thus I think we should hold off on moral charges. However, the fact that Radical Orthodoxy’s “impact” hardly depended on historical accuracy is proof that “true truth” is not currently a top priority for many post-liberal and post-conservative thinkers. The story is more important than the facts. And that’s the problem.

Take Milbank’s “Once there was no secular.” Is that true? What does it mean? Does it mean that there was a time when no one assumed an area of society that was cordoned off from religious influence? Or does it mean that there was never a space that was independent of ecclesiastical and priestly control? Or does it mean that pre-moderns never claimed pure objectivity of reason? Or did it mean a mixture of all of these, and if so, was that situation good, bad, or mixed? Most importantly, are we asking these questions before we run off quoting Milbank against President Obama, John Rawls, or Billy Graham?

Was there a great “Fall” in history? Yes. It was in the Garden of Eden. Adam fell into sin and brought the rest of creation with him. Since that point, we have been rising and falling in relative ways. Sometimes these are predictable and semi-cyclical, and sometimes they are accidents of history. We need to be very careful planting flags on certain historical moments or personalities and trying to explain large swaths of “influence” and “legacy” from them. Ideas don’t have consequences so much as people acting upon those ideas in historically-contingent situations have consequences.

Let’s go back to Protestants who can or cannot write. One of the points that got made in an earlier installment is that modern literature is primarily a product of the Reformation– or at least of the early Modern era (which cannot be separated from Protestantism). Some of this was because of the “Affirmation of Ordinary Life,” as Charles Taylor calls it. Literature was now free to be about aspects of life other than religion. But some of it was simply because of the technological advances. Printing presses and movable type quite simply opened writing up to more people than ever before, and it created a “demand” that had not been there in earlier eras. More people wrote and more people read, and this led to more people wanting to write and read.

And yes, this led to a sort of democratization of ideas– not necessarily because people were thinking that the concept of democracy was especially great, but because information was simply being distributed more widely. Some people probably did “connect the dots,” but most people simply lived in the moment. A big political “moment” was going to come from this, but whether anyone knew that it was going to come, or whether when it came anyone was thinking about the history of ideas, is a different story altogether.

Why don’t Protestants write more or better today? The answer to that is likely the same as the answer to why don’t more people write more or better today. (Sure, the overall quantity of writing is more than it’s been, but the quality does seem poor.) And that answer is most certainly not an ideological explanation but a practical one. The “geography of genius” has moved into other areas. Young people are training, at very early ages, to be athletes or musicians or politicians or STEM majors. Far fewer of them are training in the various arts of older generations. Is this because of “progressive education”? Partly. Is it because of modernistic beliefs about religion? Maybe, but certainly not always. (How many professional athletes are deeply religious, even of the more fundamentalist or superstitious type?) Is it because many people don’t ever bother to ask this question in the first place but simply follow the trends and incentives of their locations? And if it’s this last question, is that really new at all? Is that modern or post-modern?

Or is it perennial?

When you read the Old Testament you find out that the children of Israel were always messing things up. In fact, they were always getting their religion mixed up. They brought idols with them out of Egypt and never quite put them all away. At every turn the godly leaders are complaining or fighting against a faithless crowd– and its a crowd of insiders. The great heroes are always losing their own children to infidelity and rebellion.

I’m not sure much has changed on those fronts.

Have our churches gotten weaker? Certainly. Except, some of them have gotten much stronger. Back in the 1950s, you could hardly find a Presbyterian Church in America that openly preached the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Today they are still a minority, but they are certainly making a comeback, and they often have a greater reach of influence than their membership numbers would suggest.

Does “secular” society represent a great loss to public religion? Certainly. Except we probably have as much or more intellectually-orthodox Christians self-consciously trying to apply their faith to “all of life” now than at any point in human history. Again, it’s an uphill battle, but I simply don’t believe that if you asked these kinds of questions to an average person in the 6th, 12th, or even 18th century, that they would understand what you were talking about. We see connections now because we are teaching ourselves and other to see them.

Do you think the church you are currently attending is “better” (in terms of orthodoxy, liturgy, and orthopraxy) than the one in which you or your parents grew up? I bet most of us do. That’s not some great trump card to say that modernity is A-ok. It’s just a reminder to keep things in perspective. Don’t let our stories get away from us. Keep it real.

We should “recover” lost tools, and we should relativize the present. Absolutely. But we have to demystify all of it too. Let’s pay attention to the good and the bad, the gains and the losses, and let’s not treat any one part of history as if its especially immune to our common ills. Let’s deal in true truth and real reality. Let’s have a lot more world and a lot less view.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

One reply on “Getting Over “Fall” Narratives”

As to the point, “why can’t Protestants write?” (as well as many other sorts of people) perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “what happened?” but instead, “Who can write well and why?” I’ve noticed that poverty studies–social science studying persistent poverty–never seems to make a difference. You can’t point to a neighborhood and say, “Boy, things turned around when those guys with the clip boards and their questions came by!” We should study success. Most people admire C. S. Lewis, but few can write like him. And in my experience, one reason so few of his admirers ever learn to is because they’re not truly doing what he did. They don’t think like him. Perhaps there was something lost that he held on to? I think he considered himself a dinosaur, he said so. There was a mass extinction, science tells us, a catastrophic event that wiped the dinosaurs out. We may disagree on the nature of the event, but our inability to make a dinosaur says something about a change in conditions. I don’t see his like anywhere.

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