Nowadays the devil has made such a mess of everything in the system of life on earth that the world will presently become uninhabitable for anybody but Saints. The rest will drag their lives out in despair or fall below the level of man. The antinomies if human life are too exasperated, the burden of matter too oppressive; merely to exist, one has to expose oneself to many snares. Christian heroism will one day become the sole solution for the problems of life. — Jacques Maritain
In the first part of this essay, we argued that the spiritual creature’s power of abstraction can and has been used to escape from the actually existing world as God created it, and from God Himself. We argued that Lucifer was the sole “inventor” of this atheistic technology through his one-time act of autonomous choice, and that his angelic and human followers were never quite able to match their master’s art. We then discussed tradition as the mediator of human contact with creation and Creator. Incarnate realities and intelligible meanings come to us only as participants in what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “traditions of rationality.” The Catholic Church is the tradition of rationality par excellence.
We then argued that Lucifer, understanding the indispensability of supernatural tradition for human salvation, has been tirelessly working to destroy both the divine Catholic Tradition and those secular, human traditions retaining some imprint of medieval Christendom. He nearly accomplished this destruction in the past century, but failing in his attempt to destroy Tradition, he changed his tactic from destruction to creation, with the infernal invention of anti-tradition, a tradition to end all tradition. And thus, we arrive at our present task, to describe, recognize, and unmask this anti-tradition, that is, to name the demonic offspring. We hope thereby to deprive it of much of its power.
If the task of recognizing, unmasking, and naming evil belongs to the exorcist, then in my opinion the exorcist par excellence of philosophical evil is the great Scottish-born Catholic philosopher of tradition, Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre uses the name of liberalism to denote the demon, a name quite familiar to all of us, but the reality he names retains its power precisely in its familiarity:
Liberalism… does of course appear in contemporary debates in a number of guises. … So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: the contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.
To me, MacIntyre’s words here are reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of the cave (but, then, everything reminds me of Plato’s cave). Secular liberal democracy is the cave, liberalism the shadows on its walls, and “conservative,” “liberal,” and “radical” various shaped and sized shadows. For those in the cave, reality is contacted by comparing and choosing among the shadows; certain shadows appear “true,” while other shadows seem “false.” But since shadows are all they know, it cannot be said they really know any of these shadows at all. They do not know the shadows as shadows. They may use the word “shadow” in their many echoey, cave discussions, but they do not know of what the shadows are. Indeed, if they ever recognized the shadows as shadows, they would escape the cave.
Liberalism is similar. People in the modern west may use the term liberalism, and identify “other” points of view in contrast to it, but because they are inside liberalism, and do not know it, they do not recognize the liberalism of liberalism. They do not see it as an alien, artificial ideology projected upon the walls of their minds by the elitist puppeteers of academia, religion, bureaucracy, and media, but simply as “just the way things are.” They are like fish that never recognize their immersion in water because they know of nothing else.
What then is liberalism? MacIntyre gives a popular definition of liberalism here:
Initially, the liberal claim was to provide a political, legal, and economic framework in which assent to one and the same set of rationally justifiable principles would enable those who espouse widely different and incompatible conceptions of the good life for human beings to live together peaceably within the same society. Every individual is to be equally free to propose and to live by whatever theory or tradition he or she may adhere to…
Up to this point, we have a “cave definition” of liberalism. As we read on, however, light begins to shine upon the shadows:
… unless that conception of the good involves reshaping the life of the rest of the community in accordance with it…. And this qualification of course entails not only that liberal individualism does indeed have its own broad conception of the good, which it is engaged in imposing politically, legally, socially, and culturally wherever it has the power to do so, but also that in so doing its toleration of rival conceptions of the good in the public arena is severely limited.
Liberalism claims to provide a religiously neutral social framework within which individuals can autonomously determine their own vision of the world in perfect freedom. MacIntyre rejects liberalism’s official public claim that it lacks any particular conception of the good and any restrictions on the conceptions of the good of others. If MacIntyre’s characterization of liberalism is correct, then liberalism is unmasked as a liar.
And it is a particularly pernicious lie. Since liberal culture is, according to MacIntyre, founded upon a particular conception of the good and a particular doctrine of truth, namely the good of the privatization of all claims to truth, and the truth of the irreducible plurality of conceptions of the good, and since the publicly authoritative rhetoric of liberal culture denies having any substantive conceptions of its own, then what liberalism amounts to is an established and intolerant belief system—a religion that indoctrinates citizens into disbelieving in its very existence. Just as the puppeteers must ensure that the shadows are never seen as shadows, else the cave be identified as a cave and the prisoners break their chains, liberalism must never be exposed as liberalism, that is, as a historically contingent, non-necessary, manmade ideology. It must at all costs be identified with “the facts,” “the way things are,” as the inexorable social reality. In short, as the great Nietzschean ironist Stanley Fish, a cave-puppeteer with a genius for exposing his fellow puppeteers to the light, has confessed: “Liberalism doesn’t exist.”
The problem, however, is that it does, and its existence is no longer limited to an abstract idea or a revolutionary experiment—it is now a well-established social reality. The liberal incubus has found a willing consort in the decrepit culture of the secularized west, and, as MacIntyre tells us, has begotten a son, a living tradition:
In the course of history liberalism, which began as an appeal to alleged principles of shared rationality against what was felt to be the tyranny of tradition, has itself been transformed into a tradition.
And unfortunately, we citizens of the modern liberal democracies of the west are its traditionalists.
If Alasdair MacIntyre is the philosophical exorcist of our time, then William Cavanaugh, a Catholic founder of the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement, is his theological counterpart. Cavanaugh’s name for liberalism is the “worship of the empty shrine,” and, according to Cavanaugh, its main temple is the United States of America:
The public shrine has been emptied of any one particular God or creed, so that the government can never claim divine sanction and each person may be free to worship as she sees fit … There is no single visible idol, no golden calf, to make the idolatry obvious … officially the shrine remains empty … The empty shrine, however, threatens to make a deity not out of God but out of our freedom to worship God. Our freedom comes to occupy the empty shrine. Worship becomes worship of our collective self, and civil religion tends to marginalize the worship of the true God. Our freedom, finally, becomes the one thing we will die and kill for.
And the priests of the empty shrine have become quite zealous of late to evangelize, both through preaching—McDonald’s, MTV, pornography, and condoms—and, especially since 2003, through inquisition—democracy and freedom at the end of a gun, a white phosphorous bomb, or an electric shock to the genitals. The god of the American state is a very jealous god, commanding its devotees to kill for it, as Cavanaugh writes, “You may confess on your lips any god you like, provided you are willing to kill for America,” and to be killed for it, as MacIntyre wryly puts it, “It is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”
With a track record of human sacrifice, how has the empty shrine of liberal nothing worship (to conflate names for a moment) managed to escape our detection? The short answer is that it has removed our eyes. Authentic traditions, both natural and supernatural, embody and transmit the ultimate realities of man’s existence, the transcendent origin, end, and meaning of things that cannot be grasped by the isolated individual, and cannot be fully rationalized or defined. Ultimate reality must be experienced through and in its incarnation in tradition. It is in this sense that tradition is the eye that allows men to see the spiritual, eternal, and transcendent meanings hidden in the physical, temporal, and mundane facts of everyday existence.
Participants in the anti-tradition of liberalism, however, are prevented from ever seeing themselves as participants in a tradition, even though they are its slaves. They are blinded to their God-given identity as members of a common good higher than themselves, even as they serve as mere cogs in the liberal machine. MacIntyre explains:
Liberalism, while imposing through state power regimes that declare everyone free to pursue whatever they take to be their own good, deprives most people of the possibility of understanding their lives as a quest for the discovery and achievement of the good, especially by the way in which it attempts to discredit those traditional forms of human community within which this project has to be embodied.
How does liberalism do this? Like any demon, its power over us lies in its ability to imitate the divine. To me, America’s worship of freedom at the empty shrine bears a striking resemblance to the Church’s worship of the Holy Trinity in the Eucharist. First of all, like the Catholic Church, the empty shrine defines itself as both universal and particular: as a universal idea, that of equal freedom for all, and as a particular country with a particular history, the United State of America. Like the Holy Trinity, absolute freedom is transcendent, unlimited, and infinite. Discourse about freedom, like talk about the Trinity, is necessarily abstract, since to speak in a concrete manner about that which transcends any particular object would be to profane it by limiting it, a kind of idolatry.
Since America is not only an abstract idea but also a real place, its worship is both immanent and transcendent, like the Holy Eucharist. The immanent body, blood, and soul of the Eucharist are a thirty-three year old Jewish carpenter from Nazareth, but these are inseparable from His higher identity as the transcendent and eternal Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. The immanent land, citizens, and government of freedom-worship are a 230-year-old regime located in North America, but these are inseparable from its higher identity as the very locus of transcendent and eternal freedom.
Thus, American worship of freedom competes with the Holy Eucharist, but as Cavanaugh suggests, to most Americans, the empty shrine seems the more holy of the two:
According to [Michael] Novak, the shrine has been “swept clean” in democratic capitalism not out of indifference to transcendence, but out of reverence for it, and out of “respect for the diversity of human consciences, perceptions, and intentions.” Transcendence is preserved by the freedom of each individual to pursue the ends of his or her choice.
The freedom cult includes all others, even the cult of the Eucharist, and so it is more universal, more “catholic,” and therefore more divine than the Eucharist. By not prescribing any particular object of public devotion, America’s empty shrine appears to allow all devotions to exist and thrive more successfully than if there were an exclusivist, established cult, such as Catholicism.
However, this is all a grand illusion. As David Schindler points out: “The state cannot finally avoid affirming, in the matter of religion, a priority of either “freedom from” or “freedom for”—both of these imply a theology.” By prescinding from the particularity of religious truth in the organization of the American body politic, the American Founders enshrined a theology, a religion. The implied theology of its First Commandment, the First Amendment, is that nature is separable from grace, temporal matters from the spiritual, reason from faith, freedom from truth, the state from the Church. Though some of the Founders manifestly had Christian intent, the American Founding was essentially exclusivist, anti-pluralistic, dogmatic, and Masonic. It was an implicitly anti-Catholic theological establishment, not just a “prudential accommodation” of religious pluralism, as is commonly thought. In other words, liberalism doesn’t exist—there is no such thing as an empty shrine.
We have now identified our demon. The Tradition of Nothing Worship is not the worship of religious truth, but religious freedom, not the belief in the Incarnation, but the belief in belief, not the desire for God, but the desire for desire. It has no definable substance, no particular content, no concrete object for worship, for it is only an abstraction. But then, it is the worship of nothing. We know that worship of the Catholic religion produces saints, but what does the worship of nothing produce? Jim Kalb gives us the terrifying answer:
Since it is choice itself that makes something good, one does not choose things for their goodness but simply because one chooses them. Choices thus become arbitrary, and human actions essentially non-rational. On such a view, the rational component of morality is reduced to the therapeutic task of clarifying choices and the technical task of securing their satisfaction efficiently and equally … It is the outlook of a psychopath.
From the First Amendment’s “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” to Ike’s Eisenhower’s “This country and its institutions make no sense unless they’re founded on religion–and I don’t care which one” to George W. Bush’s “The ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope still lights the way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it”—it’s all the same Masonic gospel. G.K. Chesterton was right: “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” And, it has established countless mission churches in Europe and throughout the world. It is now attempting to gouge out the eyes of the Muslims in the Middle East, whose collective sight is already quite dim. The “darkness of Islamism,” to use the words of Pius XI, is about to get much darker, and as we attempt to blind our “enemies,” we become all the blinder—the full eclipse of the West looks to be imminent.