Welcome to 'The New Pantagruel'

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May 31, 2006 at 11:00 PM

[Originally published: The New Pantagruel, Winter 2004]

It is time to state clearly what many Christians sense intuitively, and what a few are saying: the Western church is in a historical period of dissolution; and Enlightenment Liberalism is both the engine of our dissolution and its logical end. Liberalism, not Christianity, is the dominant force of Western Modernity. Liberalism is the ideology that enshrines the Enlightenment ideals of a rational and egalitarian society; it seeks maximum individual freedom in politics and markets. As a system of government (democracy) and of material exchange (capitalism), it is the only legitimate ordering system left standing at the “end of history.” It prizes above all else the liberty of an individual to define himself in a fluid environment, unimpeded by any outside constraint save perhaps the reciprocal consent of his fellow citizens—a consent which, by the perverse logic of Liberalism, can almost never be withheld. This freedom, left unchecked, has become endemically exploitative in both the political right and left today, though for a time the areas of exploitation have remained distinct. And it is manifested in a dehumanizing materialism which, in essence, denies the human soul.

During such periods of transition, traditional religious particularism—with ordering principles hostile to those of Liberalism—finds itself either fighting a rear-guard action from within fortified ghetto walls, or seeking an arrangement with the new power structure which gives representatives of the old order some seats at the table, still clothed in ancient accoutrements but stripped of authority. However, neither rear-guard actions nor seats at Liberalism’s table are attractive. Rear-guard actions are, by definition, doomed to fail, and all the sooner if they become entrenched and cynical. On the other hand, the newly fêted “Christian of influence” sitting at Liberalism’s table will likely be regarded with a distant respect, as if she were an exotic native in strange garb. But it will be implicitly understood that while the vestiges of her tradition are acceptable in the category of “cultural diversity,” she will be expected to discourse exclusively in the language of Liberalism, and she certainly will not be permitted to bring her ancient superstitions about the human soul to bear on any of the important decisions which must be made.

The Western church, then, is hung on the horns of this dilemma. The pre-modern remnant of the Christian tradition reacts against the more obviously exploitative and soul deadening aspects of Liberalism, but the overweening temptation to be immediately relevant, to participate in Western “mass” culture, and to get a seat at the table has inexorably dragged the church forward towards its mass death. The Western church has become, in large part, a walking identity-crisis. Thus, we experience the frustrations of a schizophrenic who desires simultaneously to be the life of the party and to be left completely alone; we are continually demoralized by our failure to find a place where we can experience equally the pride of being different and the happiness of blending in. In essence, this crisis embodies the whole ailing left-right split of our modern era. The recognition must soon dawn on the church that no matter what one’s political persuasion, there is no modern basis for achieving the true wealth that is life; no modern basis for the humane traditions of the Church; no modern basis for a real counterweight to the forces of the age. There is, then, both a historic need and moment for prophetic voices that treat the modernity-induced crisis of church and culture effectively.

The New Pantagruel aspires to do just that, on whatever scale, large or small, is given us. It is namesake to the satirical, irreverent, jocular, and committed anti-materialist work of the 16th Century French Christian Humanist François Rabelais. Rabelais’s time was much like our own: revolution and unparalleled expansion; avarice turned nearly into an art; soul deadening materialism; stifling political centralization; easy corruption in churches and governments; gross societal inequities; and tradition either ghettoized or seeking accomodation. In Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Pantagruel trips through life in the French countryside with his loyal but rascally companion, Panurge. Along the way, they drink deeply of the “triumphal, earthly life” (Erich Auerbach) and the “wild enormities of ancient magnanimity” (Thomas Browne). With this mirthful temperament towards all that is humane and with frightful anger directed against the forces that would squash such things, Rabelais used laughter, parody, and what the Russian Literary Critic Mikhail Bakhtin called “grotesque realism” as a means of subverting the pillars of official culture and the proto-totalitarian orders of society. Pantagruelism is, according to Rabelais, “a certain jollity of mind pickled in the scorn of fortune.” It is that odd cast of mind which allows one to see the corruption everywhere, including in oneself, while still loving the world.

Modernity (both at large and in the church) suffers a critical shortage of this spiritual temperament primarily because Pantagruelism is antithetical to the materialistic virtues of Western ideologies: centralization, efficiency, utilitarianism, and rationalism. It is, instead, a decisively pre-modern mode of discourse; an important way of combating what George Santayana called the “moral materialism” deadening our age. For Santayana, a healthy spiritual life was possible in this world only by looking to the “beauty and perfection that this world suggests, approaches, and misses.” The singular disease of Modernity is to forget this; which is to say that modern man idealizes a priori. He carries with him not so much a distorted view of reality; but a disdain for it. Thus, the pursuit of an ideal devolves into idealism. For Santayana, though modern man may believe himself to be an idealist, he is actually “a materialist in morals; he esteems things, and esteems himself, for mechanical uses and energies.” Idealizing a priori inculcates an over-calculation of one’s ability to effect change in the world; to confront Power and wrestle it into submission, rather than the other way around.

In contrast, the Pantagruelist is able to joyfully engage in earthly reality, insisting on seeing both the divine reflection and the demonic shadow. Drawing from Augustine’s view of this age as a saeculum senescens(an age that will pass away), the Pantagruelist is content with the uncertainties of faith for knowledge of the Beyond. This, in turn, frees him to love the people and places he finds himself surrounded by; to see things for what they are: a suggested yet missed perfection. We moderns though, inflicted as we are with the disease of Liberalism, cannot suffer the Augustinian humility regarding the prospects of this age with grace. We chafe mightily against such restraint. We desire above all to endow this age with the fulfillment that Christianity has traditionally insisted lies over the horizon. Ironically, the harder we have worked at remaking this world into a suitable future home for humanity, the stronger is our sense of disenchantment, isolation, and homelessness in the present. This is because, as Eric Voegelin put it, Liberalism “destroys the oldest wisdom of mankind concerning the rhythm of growth and decay which is the fate of all things under the sun.”

It is this cadence of life lived in the profane sphere of the saeculum senescens that Pantagruelism celebrates and delights in; and it is the ancient traditions, ceremonies, institutions, and structures that hedge, protect, and sustain this sacred dance that it champions. Its enemy, however, is materialism of all kinds and those who seek to order life and society according to materialism’s dictates. One fine Pantagruelist of the past century was the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge despised the deadening effect of modern media, and blamed it for many of society’s ills. When asked why he participated in an institution with such a baleful influence, Muggeridge replied that he was “like a piano player in a brothel who plays his best and, from time to time, is able to slip in a few bars of ‘Abide With Me’ for the edification of the patrons.” Such is the goal of The New Pantagruel.

The New Pantagruel seeks the best kinds of writers from inside and outside the mainstream Christian media: those who do not feel compelled to wallow in excessively religious discourse, but share a Chestertonian commitment to a fully nuanced Christian humanism. A Christian humanism which is forward-looking, but also post-Liberal; one which can offer cultural-political critique of both the stereotypical modern left and right from within the Christian “great tradition” that is fundamentally anti-materialist, anti-positivist, and anti-utopian. The New Pantagruel will strive to steer clear of the terminal earnestness which dooms so many efforts and of the debilitating cynicism which dooms so many others. We take to heart Chesterton’s comment that “the act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.”

With that, I invite you to become an inaugural reader of The New Pantagruel.