First Things editor R.R. Reno has just published a book with the title The Return of the Strong Gods. I confess that this title gives me the creeps. I don’t like the language of idolatry, even as a metaphor – not because I think those false gods are unreal. Are we to conjure those old gods, or be held in their sway? But there is just one God whose return we should await. Whereas Moloch and Dionysius are clearly among us, stronger than ever. But maybe that’s just me.
The language alludes to Émile Durkheim’s theory that the divine beings we invent are the result of the social unity we crave. “The former gods are growing old or dying,” he wrote, “and others have not been born. . . .A day will come when our societies once again will know hours of creative effervescence during which new ideals will again spring forth and new formulas emerge to guide humanity for a time.”
Reno’s book is in effect a commentary on those sentences. In the period 1914-45, he observes, the “strong gods” of Volk, blood, class, and historical destiny firmly ruled many nations. They brought unity to Italy, Germany, Japan, and the Russian empire, but they set men against men in destructive wars of aggression, as well as genocides. This must not happen again. So how should free societies be protected and formed in the aftermath of those wars?
Among the leaders of the democratic victors, a consensus emerged that the proper way forward was to promote open minds, an open society, and open borders. Of these, the first was decisive. Truth is inherently authoritarian and divisive, in this view, since anyone who believes an important truth is unyielding about it and prepared to die for it. So, commitment to truth had to be replaced by the blandishments of “meaning.”
The leadership class, therefore, promoted any thinker who strove to “disenchant” our world. An open society, instinctively set against traditions and conventions, was a consequence. Then, to achieve open borders, economists became the great allies: e.g., F.A. Hayek, who held that economic relationships, although weak, were (practically speaking) more attainable, or Milton Friedman, who favored the competition of the free market against nearly all forms of social control.
Reno grants that this “postwar consensus” led to remarkable prosperity. One might add that the world has not experienced another cataclysmic war. But the constant stance of our leadership class, of being “anti” the “strong gods” of truth, religion, and patriotism (witness the quickness to denounce them as “racism” and “fascism”) has all but destroyed solidarity.
The “three necessary societies” Russell Hittinger has written of – family, country, and church are suffering badly. “Marriage is collapsing among working-class Americans,” Reno observes, “In the face of this reality, it borders on insanity to fix political attention on transgender bathrooms.”
But we are social beings, and Reno warns, we can be sure that the “strong gods” will return. It is up to us whether they will be kindly or maleficent.
Durkheim’s hope for a new time of “creative effervescence” finds an echo in Reno’s book. He sympathizes with young persons who see themselves as stuck in the earlier century, as the leaders of their dying society fight mirages of Hitler and the KKK. In a couple of brief paragraphs, Reno interprets the Trump phenomenon as the expression of a yearning, which we should support, to begin a new narrative.
The strength of this book depends, I think, on the standard. If we take it to be providing a missing and unifying insight, it is simply brilliant and demands that we reconsider (or read for the first time, with alertness) many influential works from the postwar culture.
But if we take it to be providing “the key insight,” or “the governing synthesis,” then I am not so sure. There was no simple postwar consensus, as many Americans have held. Instead, the proper response to 1914-45 was to recover the foundations of democracy and, even, to transmit this tradition through universities. Reno, I think, treats William F. Buckley unfairly in this regard.
The roots of postwar liberalism reach back before the great wars, and they are intellectual not merely political. Moreover, contemporary liberalism has many more knee-jerk reactions than being “anti” fascism. Guilt at being well off; favoring the stranger over the friend (disordered self-love); abuse of Mill’s harm principle first to deny there are victims and then to ignore claimed victims; using the wealth of others to make friends; sacrificing friends to make friends; favoring general procedures over local “paternal” judgment; romanticizing the primitive and the banal; judging government actors by intentions but private actors by results. These are all parts of the liberal personality, which Reno’s thesis does not touch.
Reno’s book does not hold itself out as Catholic or even as Christian. But how should we assess it as Catholics?
Well, how could a Catholic wish to enter this new century without taking along with him the analysis, from the old century, of John Paul II – who consciously led the Church into the new millennium. Reno never engages his diagnosis of a “culture of death.” For Reno, it is neither a piece of the puzzle nor a competing synthetic insight, which therefore needs to be argued against.
For that matter, the evil of abortion-on-demand gets no treatment in the book. Yet it seems crucial to the decline of familial love, and piety to the nation. How can we have traditional pietas for a nation that cannot claim responsibility insuring that we are born? And it has also damaged solidarity: what degree of solidarity exists if we blithely watch those we confess to be our brothers and sisters led off to death?
Should we look for strange new gods so much as find the courage to treat genuine, present evils with the same passion with which liberals, in the vacuum we have created, treat evils from the past?
*Image: The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid (or The Executions) by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1814 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]