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Should We Want A New American Genesis?

Mister Douthat is an opinion writer for the NYT. He's very Catholic and very conservative, two characteristics he and I do not share. Yet I find his articles highly interesting and thought provoking. I also always learn several new words from each article.

The following article is a good example of his writings. Reading it, I felt humbled about my intelligence as I had to reread paragraphs to understand them. (I guess one could argue that his writing in too complex for an average reader like me but that misses the point that he's making his reader think and learn.)

I admire the strength of his faith and his intellect. I'm glad that the NYT has him on staff.

By Ross Douthat

In my Saturday column I dabbled in a peculiar kind of optimism about the American future, arguing that if we can avoid various forms of self-destruction over the next decade or two, we might find ourselves in a better position than almost any peer or rival — as an aging world’s last bastion of dynamism and growth, possibly centered around the New America taking shape in the Sunbelt cities and the West.

One objection to this vision focuses on my chosen location for this imagined near-future neo-America, given the possibility that climate change will render Texas or Arizona unfit for human habitation. It’s a real concern, and depending on your expectations for rising temperatures and water shortages you might bet on a Great Lakes renaissance instead. But you also shouldn’t necessarily bet against the adaptability of human beings who seem, to my own New England confusion, to really like to live in scorching heat. (Also, did you know, per this essay in our pages, that Arizona uses 3 percent less water than it did in 1957, though its population has grown more than 500 percent since then?)

The deeper objection is a spiritual one, offered by Rod Dreher, who reliably outstrips me in pessimism and comes through again here. “Yes,” he responds, “it is better to live in a country and in a culture that is doing better, materially and otherwise, than all others. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good place to live for the human spirit.” And while America may be in better shape materially than other places, he suggests, it’s just as lost as any other modern society when it comes to having a sense of what he (borrowing from C.S. Lewis borrowing from East Asia) calls “the Tao” — meaning a sense of cosmic purpose beyond mere individualism, and common values beyond the whims and aspirations of the self.

If anything, I don’t think Dreher fired at every target I offered him, because I quoted a description of this imagined New America that used the term “neo-Faustian” to describe its technological ambitions — and what serious conservative or convinced religious believer should welcome a new American century defined by the spirit of the famous doctor, the impulse to bargain for power with the very devil? If you want to cast even my relative optimism as moral pessimism, the proof is in that label: America might have another age of power still ahead of her, but we’ll have to sell our soul to get there (if we haven’t already).

This point touches on a line of tension that runs through a lot of my own writing. I’m a Catholic writer who often criticizes the decadence of the late modern world and urges it to rediscover dynamism and ambition. But if techno-capitalist ambitions are fundamentally Faustian, should a Catholic observer (or anyone else with similar commitments) really wish for them to rise again? In the Bible, after all, Promethean dreams are not always treated kindly: It’s the serpent who promises forbidden knowledge, the bloody-handed Cain who founds the first city, the builders of Babel who are scattered to the winds. Maybe the Promethean spirit in America needs to be exorcised, not revived.

This critique has been raised against both my political and personal writings. Here is Patrick Deneen’s review of “The Decadent Society” for an example of the former sort of criticism (you can read my response here). Maybe more strikingly, here are some comments from Noah Millman on my memoir about chronic illness, “The Deep Places,” which run along similar lines.

A large part of that memoir is concerned with the sheer effort involved in trying to get better from a mystery illness, the trying and trying and trying yet again, the self-doctoring and experimentation, the mad-scientist aspect of the whole experience. And Millman — who is generous to the book — comes away wondering if, despite the Christian elements in my story, the faith it really displays is more “fundamentally Promethean, a belief in the human ability to understand and overcome the material constraints of our world,” which is in some ways a “surprising place for a serious Christian to end up.”

I think it is a little surprising if you consider Christianity to be a religion exclusively concerned with bearing suffering in the present for the sake of the hereafter. But in fact, the — yes — dynamism of Christian cultures has usually reflected the working-through of the tensions between that conception of the faith — call it ascetic, monastic, quietist, Mennonite — and the equally powerful conception of Christianity as a religion of repair, reform, healing, revolution. Which, I would suggest, is also a tension woven throughout the Old and New Testaments alike, which present both a fallen world to be patiently endured and a fertile world that can be mastered and transformed.

The serpent gives Eve and Adam some sort of forbidden knowledge, yes — but it’s before that Fall, not afterward, that God tells humanity to fill the Earth and subdue it, and when Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden that mission carries on, just freighted with more suffering and pain. (As in Eden, so in Arizona.)

The first murderer builds the first metropolis, yes, but the history of God’s people centers on Jerusalem, the holy city; the Bible culminates in a transformed and redeemed cosmopolis, not a return to a purely pastoral Eden.

God lets Israel suffer invasions because of its unfaithfulness, he scatters his chosen people and sends them into exile — but in the rare moments when the Israelites have faithful leaders, faithful kings, they prosper in worldly as well as supernatural terms.

Jesus treats suffering, his own and that of others, as part of God’s unfolding plan, a cup to be drunk deeply no matter how strong the urge to let it pass. But then he also heals the sick and suffering everywhere he goes, rewards people seeking healing who take extraordinary steps to reach him, sends his disciples out to heal people and inspires a physician (per the traditional attribution, at least) to write one of the gospels that carry his message to the world.

And likewise with the history of the churches and cultures that took up that message. Followers of Christ went into the desert and lived on pillars and built monasteries and accepted violent death in every form. But they also built and developed and invented, forging the medieval and early modern forms of civilization that carried us forward into the scientific and industrial revolutions that made our own global civilization possible.

There is a doom-laden Catholic account of this dynamic modern history (which tracks with certain doom-laden left-wing accounts of modern industrial capitalism) in which the last few hundred years of technological breakthroughs and rising life expectancies and soaring skyscrapers are just one long Faustian bargain, carrying us toward the same self-destructive endpoint as the architects of Babel.

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this account really works: There has been so much growth and vitality for Christianity within the long era of scientific and technological progress, so many surprising rebirths for different forms of Christian faith, and an underappreciated relationship between dynamism in the secular order and revival in the religious realm that if you’re any kind of providentialist you have to see a version of technological modernity as part of God’s unfolding plan.

Which doesn’t mean that there isn’t also a version that tends to corruption, dehumanization and ultimately our destruction. And I agree with Dreher and other pessimists that you can see that darkness visible along some of the tech frontiers that our society is currently exploring, and in those futurist worldviews that imagine humanity superseded or replaced. It’s why I write so often about the need to master digital technology before it masters us — before we disappear into the Apple goggles, not merged with tech but submerged fatally within the virtual’s embrace. It’s why I worry about Christianity’s displacement by spiritual impulses that are explicitly Faustian, seeking help and inspiration from powers and entities (from artificial intelligence to hallucinogens and extraterrestrials) that may not have our good in mind.

But in American history, those unrestrained impulses have usually been checked by rival visions, Christian and otherwise, that are themselves also ambitious, developmentalist, exploration-oriented — but that seek humane forms of economic growth, the wise use of new technologies, a moral discernment about scientific achievements but not the rejection of their fruits.

However attenuated and fragmented, those impulses still exist — more so, I would say, in our country than in any rival power or alternative cultural redoubt — and I think they still offer the best chance to battle the chronic illness of decadence without bargaining our humanity away.

The point of envisioning a New America beyond our current troubles is not to imagine that it will be necessarily a good America. It’s just to assume that it will be an America that matters, and that’s worth fighting for.

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