We have had something of an uproar over Stephen Wolfe’s book, as consistent readers of this blog know right well. Oh, you noticed?
The commotion can be divided into two different kinds of responses. One has tried to point out worrisome trajectories of Wolfe’s associations and modes of expression, in order to better categorize him as being among those who need to be cancelled. This approach would have as one of its benefits the congenial prospect of not having to face up to any of the issues, or to answer any of Wolfe’s questions.
The other response has tackled the arguments of the book directly, which is of course the manlier approach. For a good example, The American Reformer hosted a series of reviews, pro and con, which is the way you should want to do it—and here’s one sample.
In this second mode, one of the earlier critiques of the book was the one offered up by Brian Mattson, which you can read here. What I would like to do in this post is show how Mattson’s pretty sharp dismissal of Wolfe was an exercise in what I call paradigm bumper cars. The game is set up in such a way that you can’t even crash—all you can do is bounce off of each other.
No Need to Read Any Further
Brian Mattson claims that Wolfe’s book is essentially over by page 118. And here is the quote from Wolfe that makes him want to say “game over.”
“One of the conclusions from the previous chapter is that neither the fall nor grace destroyed or abrogated human natural relations. The fall did not introduce the natural instinct to love one’s own, and grace does not ‘critique’ or subvert our natural inclinations to love and prefer those nearest and most bound to us. The fall introduced the abuse of social relations and malice towards ethnic difference. Grace corrects this abuse and malice, but it does not introduce new principles of human relations. The instinct to love the familiar more than the foreign is good and remains operative in all spiritual states of man.”(The Case for Christian Nationalism, pp. 117-118, emphasis added by Mattson)
Mattson claims that Wolfe has demonstrated nothing of the kind, and that because this observation on pp. 117- 118 is so wrong-headed there is no real need to read any further. Mattson reads on, of course, but he seemed mad enough that we may perhaps be excused for thinking that he didn’t read on all that carefully.
Here’s why. I believe that this claim of Wolfe’s is misunderstood and then misconstrued by Mattson, and this means that although Mattson’s bumper car barreled into the side of Wolfe’s, and did so most energetically, the resultant bouncing and teeth rattling did not result in any increase of knowledge.
Here is Mattson, responding to the claim made in that paragraph.
“As for that admirably distilled paragraph, I observe that one of the most obvious and central concerns of the New Testament is precisely a ‘new principle of human relations.’ It is a principle that brought no small amount of controversy, completely occupied the agenda at the very first church council, and continued to find stubborn resistance in the churches of Asia Minor, particularly in Ephesus and Galatia. Jews and Gentiles, separated for all previous ages, are now brought together into one household. One family. One body. One man. Those who continued to act on their ‘natural instincts’ to love the familiar more than the foreign, who thought that grace does not ‘critique’ or ‘subvert’ their natural inclinations to love and prefer those nearest and most bound to them, were, Paul clearly says, opposed to ‘the truth of the gospel’ (Gal. 2:14). So strong were these ‘natural’ inclinations and so strong was the tribal peer pressure involved that even the Apostle Peter succumbed to it.”Mattson, A Children’s Crusade
To summarize: Wolfe says that neither the fall nor grace altered basic human relations. Marriage before the fall was still marriage after the fall. Marriage before Pentecost was still marriage after Pentecost. Adam and Eve did not have to get married again after their expulsion from the Garden. Peter did not have to marry his wife again after Pentecost. Motherhood began after the fall, but motherhood would have been recognizably the same kind of thing had Eve given birth before the fall. And motherhood prior to Pentecost is still recognizably motherhood after Pentecost. Wolfe is simply saying that human nature, while corrupted and damaged by the fall, was not annihilated by the fall.
He is also saying that the coming of grace is a restoration of that damaged nature, not a complete re-do from the ground up. Now this has implications for civil society, as we shall see in a minute.
Nothing is more obvious to me than that Mattson is rejecting Wolfe on a profoundly mistaken basis. It is manifestly plain that the phrase “a new principle of human relations” is not being used in the same way by the two men. They are not talking about the same thing, in other words.
Would There Have Been Hometowns Without the Fall?
Wolfe is saying that a prelapsarian marriage remains a marriage after the Fall. The way a mother would have breastfed a baby had there been no Fall would have been the same as women breastfeeding their babies today. Grandparents would have looked on their own grandchildren with deep affection, just as they do today.
After the fall, as the number of people grew, we organized ourselves as social beings necessarily do, and despite the Fall, we love and cherish our hometowns. Had there been no Fall we would have loved them even better—which means we would have loved our hometowns without sinning against the people who loved their hometowns.
“Natural relations” can be understood on two different levels, and neither the fall nor grace erased these natural relations. First, we can understand them as relations that arise from the nature of individuals (marriage, parenthood, favorite aunts, etc.). And second, we can understand natural relations as those which arise from the nature of man considered collectively. In other words, did man become a social being as a result of the Fall? If not, then natural relations would have included the genesis and formation of civil societies as men organized themselves into fishing villages, or mining communities (I heard the gold is good down Havilah way), or logging towns.
Now even if you wind up dissenting from this view at the end of the day, it is a serious point, well worth discussing, and ought not to be summarily rejected the way Mattson does. And to reject this argument on the basis of the Galatians text is to appeal to a text that preaches well, but which is not really talking about the same thing at all.
Proving Way Too Much
Mattson cites the showdown at Antioch between Paul and Peter, and believes that this refutes Wolfe’s claim that there is something ineradicable about human nature. He appeals to this showdown, but that controversy was over the Judaizers’ insistence that Gentiles receive circumcision in order to be received into the church. They were saying that Gentiles had to become Jews in order to become Christians. They were claiming that their ethnicity was the key to salvation.
There are two difficulties with the way Mattson has set this up.
The first is that as Wolfe has postulated unfallen humans fanning out over the globe, organizing themselves into civic communities as they go, he assumes that some of them much preferred the wooded mountains where they spent their days harvesting timber, while others much preferred their daily excursions out onto the bay in the scramble for good oysters. All of them, being unfallen, would have made periodic pilgrimages (to Eden, say) in order to appear there before the Lord. In order for Mattson’s invocation of Galatians to apply here, we would need to have a band of sailor pilgrims refuse to have any table fellowship with the lumberjack pilgrims until the lumberjacks agreed to put on some oyster men hats.
But in an unfallen world, why is it so hard to imagine a man loving his mountain home while simultaneously loving the fact that another man loves a moving deck beneath his feet in much the same way? While at the same time not understanding how such a love is possible? Even in this fallen world, it is possible to imagine this. In short, Wolfe is describing for us a world in which Legolas and Gimli can be friends. And speaking of that, here is a must read.
In short, there is no spiritual problem whatever in loving where you are, and who you are with. The problem is when you imperiously demand that everyone else come and stand right in your spot, and love it in exactly the same way you do. The problem is an imperious spirit, which the Judaizers had.
The second problem is this. In order for Mattson’s critique to land, the gospel would have to annihilate all creational and social hierarchies and relationships. His critique of Wolfe’s unfallen civic communities applies just as much to other creational and corporate realities. But Christian children are still supposed to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1-3), are they not? Wives are still wives in the new aeon (Eph. 5:22)—even though the New Testament established a new order of things (Gal. 3:28). Slaves must still honor their masters, not despite the arrival of grace, but rather because of it (1 Tim. 6:1-5). In short, if marriages can survive the arrival of the new covenant, why can’t towns survive it? And if the new covenant flattens all such distinctions, then why are we still hanging on to the nuclear family?
Mattson backhands our “natural inclinations to love and prefer those nearest and most bound to” us, but doesn’t it all depend on what you are doing with those natural inclinations? If you appeal to your natural love for the familiar in order to justify your refusal to show hospitality to strangers, then Mattson is right. You are sinning (Heb. 13:2). But if you don’t take responsibility for the natural duties that arise out of your natural relations, then you have denied the faith and are worse than an infidel (1 Tim. 5:8). But why should I have to take care of grandpa if we are all “One family. One body. One man”?
In short, the Galatians controversy has nothing whatever to do with Wolfe’s thesis. In order to answer Wolfe on point, Mattson would have to say something like, “You are correct that neither fall nor grace altered basic human relations, but what is a basic human relation? I deny that tribal groupings would have been in that category, absent a fall.” Or he could have said that the fall and grace altered some basic human relations, but not others, and then offer the criteria by which we could tell which ones were altered. But that is not how he approaches it at all.
He is accusing Wolfe of requiring universal conformity to a particular ethnic template (which is what the Judaizer were doing) when Wolfe is actually doing the precise opposite. Wolfe is saying “quit trying to make everyone Americans. Just let them be.” To say that America is simply one nation among many, and is not a universal idea, is to give everybody else breathing room.
Which we should all try to do.
Now in these last two sections, I want to address a couple of closely related issues, but to do so moving on from Mattson’s review of Wolfe.
First, while we rightly object to the weaponization of intersectionality in the name of Marxist destabilizations—they use intersectionality as a force multiplier for making victims even more victimy—we should grant that life in this world is a complicated array of intersectional realities. Intersectionality is why Augustine taught us that we need to have rightly-ordered loves. Now depending upon an individual’s circumstances, the loves he needs to arrange rightly under his love for God might be relatively simple or relatively complex. An unmarried man in a remote tribe somewhere might just need to make sure his love for hunting does not compete with his love for Christ. A widower who has dual citizenship along with six kids who is interested in a divorced woman with two kids, and she has dual citizenship with two other countries, and he grew up in the OPC, and she is the daughter of a PCA pastor . . . let us just say that rightly-ordered affections could be an uphill climb for him.
Well and good. But complex does not mean impossible. I want to argue that because of America’s peculiar circumstance in church history, the enemy of our souls has been able to sow a great deal of confusion within our ranks.
Wolfe has repeatedly said that he regards “American”as a distinct ethnic group. But because we are a nation that has so much territory, and so many things going on, coupled with the false doctrine that “America is an idea,” a lot of people think that to define us as an ethnic nation is stretching the limits of the definition. We want our ethnic groups tidy and readily identifiable at a glance—like the Swedes or Japanese or Navajo. That’s an ethnicity, we say.
But some ethnic groups are complicated. Some are jumbled and mixed, and this is usually a function of size, coupled with commercial or military power. This results in layered or textured civic loyalties. The apostle Paul was of the tribe of Benjamin (Phil. 3:5), and good for him. He was also of the stock of Israel, a Hebrew of Hebrews, circumcised on the eighth day (Phil. 3:5). He was well aware of his rights under Jewish law (Acts 23:3). He was also a citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 21:39), and a certain measure of civic pride is quite evident when he says that it was “no obscure city” (ESV). He was not a citizen of some putt-putt town. On top of that, he was a Roman citizen, and he was more than willing to use the rights and prerogatives that came with that enormous privilege (Acts 16:37; Acts 22:25). All of this is most complicated, is it not? Paul was willing to go to Hell for his kinsmen according to the flesh (Rom. 9:3), and yet they were his enemies, out for his blood. His allegiance to Rome had lesser force with him, and yet they served at least for a time as his protector. He appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11), in order to protect him from the Jews.
Now when you have a tight mono-ethnic group, maintaining the group identity is pretty straightforward. It involves having babies and staying out of devastating wars. But when you have a multi-ethnic ethnicity (which happens in cosmopolitan cities and with empires) maintaining the group identity is much more of a challenge. It can be done, but it is much more difficult. The sprawling Roman Empire was every bit as variegated as America is, and then some, but it was still possible to conduct yourself as a Roman. This despite barbarians in Germany revolting, or the Jews being restive and surly, or any possible problems along the border with the Parthians.
“To whom I answered, It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die, before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have licence to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him.”
Acts 25:16 (KJV)
In other words, “we Romans” don’t do things that way.
What I am saying, and what Wolfe is saying, is that the phrase I just used earlier—a multi-ethnic ethnicity—is not oxymoronic. It is not like saying round squares.
But in order to maintain and protect a multi-ethnic ethnicity, in order to prevent it from devolving into chaos, you have to do certain basic things. This is because multi-ethnic ethnicities are not as antifragile as a standard issue ethnicity is. If you want to preserve the ethnic heritage called “American,” you have to get CRT out of the schools, you have to close the floodgates at the southern border, and you have stop pulling down statues of Confederate generals. If you don’t do these rudimentary things, you are going to create a situation where the center no longer holds, and the various ethnicities revert to their simpler tribal settings. And one of those settings is to be at war with the other tribes.
And who can deny that this is exactly what is happening?
Now my reference to the southern border is going to be seized upon by some as an example of me letting the mask slip. “See, Christian nationalism really is code for white nationalism. He wants to close the southern border, not the northern border. You see that?”
If you would be so kind as to read just one more paragraph, I would like to use it to flay this particular slander, this canard, this beastly lie, this low smear, this high calumny. This failure to rhyme with truth.
Imagine an American family that has four biological children of their own, and they have also adopted two Ethiopian orphans. Everyone is happy and well-adjusted. Now suppose an open border advocate comes into the situation and demands that this family now adopt 28 additional orphans from all over the globe. When the family declines to do this, they are promptly charged with “racism.” Their reply should be that they can only love the stranger with the resources they have, and not with resources they do not have. In order to love their own children, and the children they have adopted, they have to make sure that everyone assimilates well. If they were to adopt 28 additional children, they wouldn’t be loving anybody involved. The whole thing would turn into a pig’s breakfast. In the same way, chaos on the southern border is not “loving the stranger.” It is not loving anybody.
If I might speak autobiographically for a moment, I write as a boomer who did not sign up for the great revolt in the sixties. I remember the old order, and I remember it with affection. I do not remember it with idolatrous affection, because Christ is always first. Christ was to be greatly honored above Eisenhower’s version of America, and Christ is to be greatly honored above the shambolic mess we have going on right now. But think for a minute.
The fact that Christ is Lord over both, and is to be honored and worshiped as Lord over both, should not prevent us from seeing that God knows how to make distinctions that Russell Moore does not know how to make. Bible belt cultural Christianity is not the same thing as the kingdom, and so far Moore is correct. But the Amorites of Abraham’s day were not the kingdom either, but it remains the case that the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full (Gen. 15:16). This means the Amorites of Abraham’s day were to be preferred to the Amorites on the eve of their destruction. The hypocrisies of the fifties were vastly superior to the swelling lusts of those who feel so superior now. When referring to the hypocrites of the fifties, we only had use one pronoun—they. A glance at our cultural elites today reveals that their pronouns are legion, and they live among the tombs, cutting themselves with stones.
I was taught many valuable things as a boy, and I still treasure them. Rule of law. Private property. Due process. Respect for other traditions. Take risks. Pick up after yourself. Love your people. Welcome the stranger. I still treasure them because I am a Christian, but I do so as an American.
So of course, a distinctive American ethnicity exists. It is one of the things that the commies are hellbent on destroying.
Curry and Stroganoff
One last point. Forgive me for tarrying so long, detaining you as I am, but I need to make one last point.
Genuine conservatism has a deep suspicion of ideology. Ideologues are attracted to raw ideas, detached from life in three dimensions on the ground. We need to be anchored to place, to custom, to our people, to our traditions, to our heritage. These things are the gluten that hold the loaf together. Critics jump on this and say that it sounds dangerously like the “blood and soil” schtick of the Nazis. But the problem with blood and soil thing was that it was a rancid idea, not grounded in actual blood and real soil. National socialism was an ideology, and it carried the pathogens that all ideologies do.
So when we come to discuss our ideal when it comes to civic government, it is easy for us, living as we do in an ideological age, to think of ourselves as sitting in a restaurant, debating what we are going to order off the menu. One person thinks we should be communitarian, and another thinks we should be more libertarian. A third member in our dinner party likes what Bernie would offer up, and so forth. But influenced by ideology, we think we should order our entrée, and a short time later it will come out of the kitchen, piping hot. And then some of the people at our table got the idea that Wolfe was about to order a theocratic prince, and so they freaked out.
But this is not our situation at all. We are not ordering off the menu. Five of us are standing around a big pot in the kitchen, and the pot is full of chicken curry. Two of us are convinced that the manager has instructed us to transform the chicken curry into beef stroganoff, without taking it off the burner. Admittedly, there will have to be some miracles involved in this, among which we include the prospect of convincing the other three cooks that this is what we are supposed to be doing.
And this is why it is important for us to be debating Wolfe’s book.