The scandal of the particular: The Christian essence of human culture.
Pierre Manent is regarded by many as the foremost socio-political theorist of our time. He retired from his directorship of L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris in 2014. Since then he has been finishing up a book entitled Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge. A foretaste of this book was published in the April issue of First Things, entitled “Repurposing Europe”.
Manent sees clearly that the West has no future as a hollow and substanceless repository of invented rights. He understands that what we might call the “thickness” of a real culture is required to shape people into coherent social bodies devoted to both common ideals and particular goods. But the West, and Europe in particular, has increasingly defined itself as a kind of absence of definition—a vacuum within which each individual can do essentially whatever he or she wishes, as a matter of right.
This European vision inspires nobody, and its architects have hit a huge snag in the form of massive Islamic immigration. They have not the least idea of what to do about this. For Islamic immigrants bring with them a “thick” and very particular cultural identity formed primarily by their religion. As Manent puts it:
It is not a question of comparing the respective characters, including strengths and weaknesses, of human associations that have long histories and distinctive identities. Rather, “Islam” must be accepted so as to verify the absence of anything common—political or religious—in Europe. The unhindered presence of Islam thus takes on a paradoxical role. Its threat to a European future is actually its importance as supreme marker of our spiritual evisceration, which is taken as an achievement of human universality. [First Things, April 2016, p. 27]
Or as Manent wrote a few lines later: “We have become so universally human that we have no enemies.”
Pierre Manent knows the value of Christianity in the formation of a positive and cohesive culture, but he somewhat surprisingly sees the recovery not of Christ but of national identity as the key to a robust European culture. I would say there is some merit in this, but it can only take us so far.
Obviously, the European Union is presently a vast symbol of the rejection of national identity. Such a rejection facilitates the emptying of Europe of any identity whatsoever. Therefore, Manent rightly observes that Muslims cannot “find their place” in Europe in any meaningful way for the simple reason that Europe is too busy eradicating the cultural memory of what it means to be European. It has rendered itself incapable of providing immigrants with a unique sense of place, which would include a recognition of key values which create and bind the common good, values conveyed through a robust cultural tradition.
Our contemporary belief in multiculturalism is obviously a dead end. Providing no basis for a common culture, or even a genuine sharing among diverse cultures, it provides no basis for a common good. The West in general has largely committed itself to the project of eliminating cultural particularity as an authentic expression of being. It seems instead that the characteristics of all individual cultures must be dismissed as unnecessary peculiarities. They may be enjoyed only in a superficial sense, like a unique taste or a charming hat. But they are abhorred insofar as they actually seek to replace the modern European emptiness with any form of deeper social meaning.
It is understandable, then, that Manent calls for a revival of the national project. He sees it as the last identifiable form within which we can properly speak of those special French or German or Italian identities which were actually distinctive ways of pursuing the good together, and which also admitted of common elements shared within Europe as a whole. In this sense, the national project was the last great expression of thick culture, of that abiding “thisness” which is so necessary for human persons (who are not disembodied souls) to thrive and grow.
Manent also regards the existence of distinctive nations as the natural and ideal cultural expression of Christianity, which he sees as having outgrown the concept of “empire” in which it was born. In a similar way, he sees empire as a natural social development of Islam, which began in tribal fragmentation. I find such judgments too sweeping, but there can be no question that it is a peculiarly Christian thing to recognize and treasure the beauty and fecundity of the very “thisness” which we are discussing when we distinguish individual peoples from the entirety of mankind. Historically, that recognition is a consequence of the Incarnation. It is probably a strong hedge against cultural imperialism; the question is whether the nation, in its contemporary sense, is any sort of similar hedge.
Now it may be that Manent is right, and that a reappropriation of national identities is our best contemporary chance of reinvesting human culture with the substantial particularity necessary for the pursuit of true goods. After all, such goods, however common to all, must still be particularly achieved. They are not found in a gigantic vacuum; they do not beckon to us out of emptiness.
At the same time, of course, there are enormous dangers in the modern conception of the “nation”—a conception which has morphed over a very long period from a consideration of peoples to a consideration of the State, its sovereignty and its power. Moreover, there are manifestly many other institutions in which particular pursuits of the good can be enculturated, institutions which generally promote an authentic liberty of action over against the exclusive dominance of the national power.
Fortunately, Manent and many other writers over the centuries have been right to notice the decline of what we call intermediate institutions. This loss is itself a consequence of the atomization of liberty in the individual, with each culturally-denuded individual standing ultimately alone against the raw exercise of political power. Here we have a defining characteristic of our contemporary crisis, and it has in fact emerged from the excesses of the nation—much diminished as a people and much exalted as a power through secular utopianism.
As a practical matter, then, I have grave doubts about a return to the “national”, though I can see how much better this might be in Europe than its cultureless substitute. But what we really need is the diminishment of the bureaucratic state in all its forms, to make room again for a natural flowering of human culture—the gradually spontaneous culture of the family, the Church, the neighborhood, the school and the shop.
It is just this that is such a difficult challenge for our secular and politicized age, which insists on a cultural sameness empty of all distinctive genius, and so of all distinctive meaning. Ours is not the first age in which the one ring of power has been sought to eliminate, at one and the same time, both all difference and all dignity. In contradistinction to the world as a whole, the national may have great theoretical merit. But it is not so much another internally consistent theory that we need. What we need is the very human paradox of Christianity.
Christianity possesses a dauntingly universal scope, and yet under its tutelage holiness must be manifested always—and only—in the particular. Even the Catholic Church is holy only because she is a very particular body, and an astonishingly specific bride. It is Christianity which sets families and communities to the task of achieving goods in common, yet it is Christianity again which seeks to perfect nature by fostering a thousand variations on the good according to the genius of each person and each culture—in every time and place.
Perhaps the point is best stated like this: It is Christianity alone that seeks a perpetual blessing on the scandal of human particularity, from a God who knows what it means to be a man.
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