We really need to do a better job viewing the game film. And by “game film” I am referring to last three centuries or so, going back to the birth of Rousseau, an mal-auspicious event attended by dark signs, and probably foretold by Nostradamus. This is because clown worlds don’t make themselves, and all things in the created order have antecedents, including all the gaudy things that we find in this generation, our carnival of claptrap.
Not only so, but as we take in these centuries at a glance, trying to make sense of it all, we must take care to steer clear of the post hoc fallacy. This frenzy of moral stupidity did arise after the invention of the sewing machine, but it is doubtful that one caused the other.
Not a Book Review Exactly
I finally got around to reading Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, and am enjoying it very much. Enjoying it is not the same thing as agreeing with it, although I do in fact agree with an awful lot of it. There are many observations in the book that are pure gold, but there are some significant lines of argument that are in the not-gold category.
This post is not actually a book review of Deneen, but rather is a collection of thoughts that Deneen made me think about. This is what you get when you bring up certain topics when I am around. So in this short section, I am going to respond to Deneen briefly, and then move on quickly to the larger issue—to the things he made me think about, with occasional retrospective references to the book. Fine. Call it a book review if you want.
Deneen is at war with the autonomy of individualism, and this is very good. This is the strength of the book, and that strength is not insignificant. I believe, however, that he does not name his foe properly. As the title of his book declares his theme, it is that liberalism has failed, and he essays to tell us why it did. But his actual target should have been secularism.
He decries the classical liberal order, with its left wing progressives and its right wing libertarians, and thus far he is on solid ground. Those two wings really are the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee of contemporary politics. But left out of the equation would be the historical advocates of the classical liberal order who were orthodox Christians, and with all that it entails. More on that below.
But Deneen does successfully land a number of his blows on the chin of secularism—laying out the central incoherence of the autonomous individual. It is as though he were in a boxing tournament, and got in the ring with his opponent, but due to a scheduling mix-up he thought it was Smith when it was Murphy, but knocked him out anyway.
He misses the fact that there really has been a robust account of the classical liberal order that is distinctively Christian. The progressive advocate of the liberal order wants me to be able to determine my own sexual identity because of the autonomy of the self. The libertarian advocate of the liberal order wants me to be able to manufacture and sell widgets without being taxed to death because of the autonomy of the self. Deneen is right to see these as two sides of the same coin. The shared commitment to this autonomous self really is going to result in a left wing and a right wing that are on a perpetual political teeter-totter.
And by the way, for those who are wondering, a true liberal order of the sort I describe is not only consistent with Christian nationalism, Christian nationalism is the only possible foundation for it. Topic for another time.
So a Christian maintains that anything so fragile as a free society in a fallen world has to be built in the context of a strong Christian consensus, and that men can be genuinely free in their lawful market choices only to the extent that they have been forgiven their sins, and have become slaves to Christ.
“And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”
Romans 6:18 (NKJV)
So this is the third category, and enter the thinking Christian. All the things that progressive liberals want the autonomous self to be free to do are sorts of things that God prohibits in His Word. The libertarians wants me to be free to do things (some allowed by God and some not) for reasons that are prohibited in God’s Word. But the things that conservative Christian advocates of the liberal order want me to be able to do are things that God allows in His Word. That is not a trifle. Prohibits and allows are different verbs. For a man to sodomize another man is an abomination. To buy a jug of milk at a supermarket that covers three acres is not an abomination, but is rather a good value at a low, low price.
Deneen quotes Wendell Berry a number of times, citing him as an exemplar of the kind of thing he is talking about. But this is a poor choice—Wendell Berry is simply not part of the alternative to secularism; he is one of the cool kids. The Wendell Berry alternative is simply hipster niche, found down Aisle 19 at a WalMart near you. That man buckled, and buckled hard when it came to his view that treating homosexual behavior is something we ought not to get worked up about. There has to be something profoundly cockeyed about a critique of industrial agriculture as unnatural, even though it feeds a whole lot of babies, while defending homosexual behavior as not unnatural, even though it results in no babies.
So there is a huge difference between what the state tells me to do, and what the market allows me to do. The market frequently allows me to do things that God allows me to do. These two things are therefore not the same. And remember, when I say “the market,” there is no person ordering me about. Whenever I say “the state,” there is a bureaucrat ordering me about, stamping papers and pretending to be a god.
Thai Night at Appleby’s
Having said all this, I do owe Deneen considerable thanks. He reminded me, yet again, how destructive social contract theory has been. He reminded me of something I love to be reminded of, which is how much I hate social contract theory.
Social contract theory is an airy fairy Garden of Eden in the clouds where nobody ever lived, where there was no forbidden tree, where there was no Lord over the Garden, where nobody ever disobeyed, and where nobody was ever expelled from the Garden. There were no cherubim guarding the way back to the tree of life. That’s because there is no tree of life. What do you want a tree of life for, dreamer?
So this is where we need to look closely at the game film. Thinkers like Hobbes and Rousseau and Locke built their political systems on this airy fairy social contract, which Deneen contrasts with the concrete bonds that exist in local communities. In a local community, people belong to specific families, they have joined particular churches, they grew up in identifiable neighborhoods, and so on. Deneen critiques the classical liberal order as a hard solvent that eroded all of these local bonds, leaving the atomistic individual free to float off wherever he wanted to go. That atomistic individual was reduced to a raw choosing unit, and a distant state became the guarantor of his individualistic right to keep on choosing whatever he wanted from the menu.
But this primacy of choice, however lavish the promises that were made about it, turned out to be a freedom to choose anything you wanted off the menu at Appleby’s—and you were never free to eat anywhere else. And so if you wanted some Thai cuisine, you needed to wait for Thai night at Appleby’s.
The problem is that Deneen does not at all like Rabshakeh’s taunts at local community’s bonds and ties. Thus far we sympathize.
“Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Indeed, have they delivered Samaria from my hand?”
Isaiah 36:18–19 (NKJV)
The problem is that the taunts are true. Tribalism has never been a match for whatever empire is in the ascendancy. What we need is . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . mere Christendom.
A Social Contract With No Society
Social contract theory is a political mythology, artificially constructed to fill a gap in the argument needed in order to justify the construction of Leviathan. But the social contract never actually happened. It is what we call fictional. You cannot have a social contract arise out of the seedbed of “no society anywhere.” In order to have a social plant that grows you need to have social soil.
Part of the fiction is that in such schemes the parties to the contract do not come to it as sinners. They can do what they want. But in the Christian account, we were created as accountable beings, and we violated the terms of the covenant we were under, and we come to every social arrangement as sinners. This is a point where Madison and Machiavelli have it over Deneen because having an ideal of virtuous rulers is not the same thing as having virtuous rulers. So checks and balances are a Christian concept, not Lockean.
So filling the gap in an argument is what Hobbes was after, and C.S. Lewis rightly calls Rousseau the “father of the totalitarians.” Locke had more Christian capital operating in his system, and so tried to build in some safeguards to keep the individual from being swallowed up by the state. But, as Deneen shows, those safeguards have failed.
But let us go on to discuss why they failed, and why Deneen’s localism will also be a safeguard that necessarily fails as well.
The social contract mythology cannot be answered by this village down the road, or by that community over the ridge. The myth must be confronted with another system that has the authority and force of a myth, at least that, but which also has the advantage of actually having happened. It needs to be true, in other words.
There is a genuine social contract, and it was made in the Garden of Eden. These secular social contract thinkers want us all to be bound by a compact that was never made. No parliament ever convened to ratify it, and no members of such a parliament were ever elected to anything. The non-existent members of this parliament were by definition not sinners—you can’t sin if you don’t exist. So the social contract is an abstraction, invented to fill a gap in a political system that some guys made up. Here is my argument against social contract theory. It never happened.
A social contract, being social, has to grow somewhere. It cannot grow in the clouds, not even in the clouds of abstraction. It has to grow in soil. And the Garden of Eden had soil.
According to Scripture, there is no such thing as prehistoric humanity. All of human history is recorded, from the first day it has been recorded. It was all written down, and it has been preserved for us. There are stores in your town where you can go buy the book that gives us this historical account. There was a historical Adam in a historical Garden, together with his historical bride, and he was told not to eat the fruit of a particular historical tree. He was created and placed there in covenant with his God. We can call this the covenant of creation (or if you prefer, the covenant of works). This is the foundational social contract, the basic social covenant, and we in the rebellion of the Fall, broke that covenant.
Now in the meme above, I make the point that the man standing in front of that row of Chinese tanks claims that he never signed any social contract. What if somebody tried to make the same claim about the covenant God made with mankind in Adam? What if some unbeliever says that he doesn’t remember signing anything like that either? There is an answer for that.
“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—”
Romans 5:12 (NKJV)
Yeah, everybody signs because everybody sins. For all have signed and fall short of the glory of God. The only way to be unrepresented by Adam in this world is to have lived a sinless life. There is only one human being who ever did that, and He is the one presented to us as the second Adam—the Lord Jesus. He is therefore the only one qualified to make a new covenant with God for us. This He has done.
There is no other way.
Devastation, Despotism, and Darwin
One of the things that Darwin did was make the “just so” accounts of social contract theory necessary. If our first parents actually climbed down from the trees in order to begin work on the Great Pyramid, then we need some account of our origins. Darwin provided the so-called scientific explanation of how we got here, but that construct also needed a myth that would help us maintain our societal ties. The myths that had been constructed a century or two before Darwin fit the bill nicely. But never forget that they were entirely made up. They were an artificial construction. They were abstractions in the sky. The contract never happened.
Adam was created. He was placed in a Garden in covenant with God. He violated that covenant, and our planet was broken. All of this actually happened. Look around. The world really is broken. Who broke it?
If secularism is the true enemy, then we need to ask what has made a widespread acceptance of this secularism possible. The answer is Darwin, and if you hate despotism, you must reject Darwin, root and branch. We are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. The blind evolutionary process endows nobody with anything. You cannot have real liberty and Darwin also. Let me repeat, can’t have it. This means that if you want to fight for the liberty of your children and grandchildren, you would be better employed reading Ken Ham than any of the enemies of your liberties at Biologos.
Now as it happens, the Fight Laugh Feast conference this coming fall is on this very topic. I will be there, Lord willing, and I am giving you a little preview of the drum that I am going to be beating. There can be no civic liberty without a historical Adam. He is the one with whom the original social contract was made. But he broke the covenant, which plunged our world into sin and darkness. That means there can be no liberty with a historical Adam either. We are all enslaved by our sin. This is why God sent His Son as another Adam to die on a cross so that our sins could be forgiven, and so that we could be ushered back into the liberty we were originally created for.
If you have no historical Adam at all, then you are simply a random collection of meat, bones, and protoplasm. You consequently have no rights, and you have no right to ask for any rights. Blind evolutionary processes do not love you, and do not have a wonderful plan for your life. But if you have a historical Adam, and that’s all you have, then you have no rights either and this is because you are a sinner. A sinner is by definition a slave.
No Good News Without the Good News
If you have eyes in your head, you can see the approaching tyranny. It is that ominous bulge in the water heading for the beach, and which will be seen as a true tsunami when it gets here. Confronted with that kind of bad news, we have to understand that by the “good news,” Scripture does not present us with a range of alternatives.
There is only one gospel, one truth, one Lord. There has been only one resurrection from the dead, and without that resurrection everything is hopeless. There is only one way out. There is no alternative to that one way out. The big thinkers can’t save us. Big thinkers got us into this mess.
So do you want the freedoms and the blessings that come with the classical liberal order? Then you must confess the name of Christ. He is risen. Jesus is Lord. Without Christ, the classical liberal order is a rope of wet sand, and good luck tying anything up with it. Without Christ, the classical liberal order is not classical, is in no way liberal, and is extremely disordered.
All the liberty-loving efforts of puny men, if they resist in their own name, can provide no effective opposition to these illiberal secularists. Deneen’s localism means well, but is powerless to stop these guys. These secular totalitarians want to be lords on the earth, and are hellbent in pursuit of their lusts. The only one who can scatter them is the one who has scattered them many times before.
But He does it through men who preach a hot gospel. And properly understood, there is no other kind of gospel.