Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"The Long Sneer"

Ross Douthat, himself no "great admirer" of Russell Kirk, eviscerates Alan Wolfe's "hatchet job" on Kirk in the The New Republic. An excerpt, beginning with a quotation from Wolfe:
.. when it comes to Judaism, Kirk has some exceedingly odd ideas. Without the legacy of ancient Israel, he wrote in a book published in 1974, "the American moral order could not have come into existence at all." But we should not conclude from Kirk's comment that he believes Judaism to have made an important contribution to American life. Quite the contrary: following Voegelin, Kirk believes that Judaism's role in history was simply to prepare the way for Christianity. The idea of a Chosen People, Kirk writes, was a necessary prelude to a time in which "God becomes known successively as Creator, as Lord and Judge of history, and as Redeemer." In this role the Jews were not alone; Platonism is another ancient religion that anticipated the coming of Jesus. "Neither the leap of Israel nor the leap of Hellas brought full knowledge of the transcendent order; it required the fusing of Jewish and Greek genius in Christianity for a leap still higher."
Dear me, what an "exceedingly odd idea," this notion that Judaism might have been a precursor to a fuller revelation of God's purposes. Why, it's almost as if Kirk were ... were ... a Christian.

Except that it is one of Wolfe's most telling points against Kirk that he supposedly wasn't a Christian, that he wasn't intellectually gutsy enough to actually pick a specific faith and stick with it:
With four religions unable to be called upon to gird the social order, one might think that Kirk's next step would be to identify the one that, to him, is best suited for the task. But this Kirk never does. He defends religion, but not any particular religion. One looks in vain for apologetics in Kirk's work, for some serious theological demonstration that the ideas associated with a particular tradition, because they are true, are the best ideas for holding society together. Lacking any such thing, Kirk's call for a "sacred patrimony" amounts to little more than Dwight Eisenhower's injunction on the importance of believing in something, whatever that something happens to be. It is really an uplifting form of philosophical indifference ... Against this vapidity, give me Father Neuhaus anytime: when he defends the need for religion in the public square, you are not left in doubt about which religion it is.
Various people have pointed out that Kirk did, in fact, choose a religion, converting to Roman Catholicism in 1964. To which Wolfe has retorted, in a reply to his critics:
I was not interested in, and did not talk about, Kirk's private faith; my point ... was that Kirk's refusal to identify one religion as the public faith whose principles were meant to guide our collective morality reflected a failure to think through his remarkably banal ideas about the importance of religion for the social order ... it was actually out of respect for Kirk's privacy that I did not discuss his personal religious preferences; I do not believe it is my business to talk about people's confessional beliefs.
How noble and high-minded! But this is all rubbish: Kirk does defend a particular religion tradition; he just doesn't defend a particular confession within that tradition. Like many modern conservatives, he suggests that the Western social order is founded on a common Judeo-Christian religious inheritance (a "Mere Judeo-Christianity," if you will) that undergirds our social order, a point of view that he shares, not incidentally, with none other than Richard John Neuhaus, who is despised by many right-wing Catholics precisely for his ecumenism. Perhaps this common tradition is just a figment of Kirk's and Neuhaus' and many other people's imagination; perhaps the contradictions between Judaism and Christianity, or between Catholicism and Protestantism, are too great to provide a common foundation for a social order; perhaps there is simply no middle ground between a purely secular society and a society grounded in, say, Catholic social teaching and nothing else. I think the experience of the United States suggests otherwise, but again, if Alan Wolfe wants to have that argument, by all means. Again, he doesn't; he just wants to sneer. [more]
Ross Douthat: The Long Sneer

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