3,027 words / 20:40
My recent essay on “Identity and the Problem with Christianity” garnered a fair bit of criticism from Christian members or allies of Identitarianism. This was something I expected, as the thesis—that authentic Christianity is incompatible with any other form of identity—is neither conciliatory nor is it a consciously accepted precept of Christian theology. Naturally, it may appear both unnecessarily divisive and unfair.
It is perhaps worth confessing that the essay was not pleasurable to write. As a former Christian, and a man who is in many ways still culturally Christian, who has many friends who are Christian, who enjoys the mythology and stories of Christianity, and as someone who cares about the success of the New Right and its allies in opposition to the liberal worldview and the evil vision it has for us, discovering and articulating a conflict between the very heart of Christianity and the essence of Identitarianism was a decidedly negative experience.
I bring this up not to wallow in the melancholy of the subject, but to attempt to clear myself of an allegation that is often explicitly made by Christian apologists about atheists, and which was tacitly made in one particular criticism by the Sun Society, which is that I simply wish to do whatever I want: “Robertson claims he finds within paganism there to be spiritual justification for his racial nationalism. This is true, because paganism can be used to spiritually justify anything.”
I hope that this essay in response to Sun Society may serve a similar purpose for other critics as well.
Let me begin by clarifying something that a surprising proportion of people seemed to misunderstand, both about my essay and about identitarianism in general: ethno-nationalism is not the goal of identitarianism. The goal of identitarianism, broadly speaking, is fundamentally to live an authentic life in accordance with our true nature. Because different people have developed different cultures—in part due to differences in biology, in part because of sheer luck—an authentic life is going to look different between different groups. For this reason, ethno-nationalism appears to many (myself included) as a logical consequence, but it is not a necessary consequence, because it is not the goal. It is merely a means to the goal and could very well be the wrong means.
This does not appear to be likely, but it is certainly possible.
In “Identity and the Problem with Christianity,” race was not the topic. Family was a far more prevalent theme—and identity—depicted in conflict with Christianity. In fact, the subject of race was confined to the first three paragraphs, and there served only two purposes: to exemplify how certain premises lead to, and bar, certain conclusions in a logical argument, and to argue that race is not the only component of identity. On this point, I believe it is natural for the Christian to—without intending to—interpret a multi-faceted conception of identity as a disguised drive for a singular identity, such as race. We will return to this projection later.
Living an authentic life is no easy thing to define, but we know it—we can feel it—when we are not living authentically. C. S. Lewis alludes to this (in slightly different language) in the opening of Mere Christianity, describing the moral sense which quarrelling individuals appeal to and even tacitly acknowledge while violating it, making up all sorts of justifications and excuses as to why in this instance, their actions are justified. That they should require justification is a curious and important observation. But living authentically is not just about morality and can mean many things. It can mean, for instance, that if I am English, I am likely to feel most at home, and likely to actualize myself most completely by acting as an English person in a society with English values. This is where Sun Society’s strange and persistent criticism of empiricism as “Anglo-oriented” passes the argument against Christianity like a boat passing the harbor. Much of the rest of his criticism—well-researched and written though it may be—passes by in like fashion.
Sun Society’s summary of the argument reads as follows:
The objection is that the metaphysical and spiritual grounding of Christianity (or a number of religions) pays no meaningful heed to physical reality, and thus the Christian unintentionally perpetuates injustice by inaction, or sometimes seemingly applaud degeneration of physical communities.
His argument consists of three main points:
- Most modern Christians are not real Christians
- Paganism is the real source of the problems of the modern age
- Identitarianism—racial or otherwise—is necessarily materialistic, and is thus in the same camp as the communists, LGBT activists, and materialistic pagans who will all ultimately become “swallowed by their passion, and become another flame in the burning Gomorrah that is contemporary Western culture.”
I sympathize Sun Society’s frustration with the state of modern Christianity. From my own experience, most Christians are essentially insincere in their faith. But this is hardly a reason to reject Christianity, since most pagans and practitioners of other religions are also insincere in their professed faith, or at least inconsistent and unserious enough to warrant serious skepticism. I am entirely uninterested in the broad variety of incorrect Christian practices and am more interested in whether the strongest and correct interpretation is true, and whether it is good.
In “Identity and the Problem with Christianity,” I did not cite liberation theologians, nor did I cite any other modern slanderers of the faith disguising their liberalism with Christian language. I cited the Bible, Augustine, Bishop Robert Barron (widely regarded as a moderately conservative Catholic), and only anecdotally referenced a left-wing evangelist after stating that I held his position to be theologically unsound on Christian grounds:
“This familial bond is often even extended to unbelievers by particularly zealous Christians, who trust the welfare of their families, their nations, and themselves to foreigners and strangers who do not share their faith. This is not theologically sound, so far as I can tell, but it is illustrative in its visible instincts of how Christians are expected to treat other Christians.”
Sun Society did not extend this charity in citation to the pagan position, citing Karl Marx and LGBT activists as comparative examples of where paganism leads. It is as if he believes that paganism is against religion itself simply because it is against Christianity.
This leads into the problems with his second point, which concerns the nature of paganism. As previously quoted, he believes Paganism is able to justify anything, but how can it do this? Even rank hedonism does not justify everything, nor does the Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism (MTD) which Sun Society cites as the predominant religion of America.
Paganism can be made to appear to justify anything because “paganism” is an umbrella term for non-Christian, polytheistic religions, not “a religion” per se. Asatru, Thelema, and Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism are three distinct kinds of paganism which do not share identical values, although they have some overlap with each other. Criticizing paganism on the grounds that paganism can justify anything is like criticizing Christianity—a religion—because religion can justify anything.
This is, strangely, a point that Sun Society partially acknowledges: “Even if we are using paganism in the sense that we are trying to go back to lost ancestral roots, the many ethnicities falling under the category of ‘white’ did not practice a singular white paganism, but a vast myriad of different forms of paganism.”
It is not an “even if.” He has described exactly the sense of paganism being tacitly defended in “Identity and the Problem with Christianity,” which he correctly points out does not lead to an all-white ethno-state. This is one of many reasons that I did not advocate or even mention ethno-nationalism in the essay. The point of the essay was not to defend ethno-nationalism, or even paganism—which requires no explanation to outsiders anyhow. Rather, it was to point out a conflict between the nature of authentic identity and Christianity. That older, traditional forms of paganism generally do not face this conflict is merely an illustrative counter-point, but the conflation of these practices with the materialist and consumerist fruits of the enlightenment is false and deceitful.
In fact, it is far more plausible that Nietzsche was right; that the fruits of modernity are the inevitable bastard-child of Christianity itself, whose preoccupation with objective truth for its own sake ultimately required its own inevitable erosion and self-replacement with scientism and dialectic materialism.
This leads to Sun Society’s final criticism, which is the assertion that Paganism/Identitarianism (“racial nationalism”) is necessarily materialistic and will ultimately succumb to “the immediate dangers of utter commitment to a materialist axiom.”
This criticism is perhaps the culminating irony of the article and criticism, projecting the monotheistic tendency towards tunnel-vision upon polytheism, and imagining that the interconnected web of values—nuanced in their interactions, and always under tension—represents literalist monotheism, rather than polytheistic paganism.
To begin with, the insistence of “materialism” as a precept of paganism is false. The non-conflict between the spiritual and the mundane is alluded to by Sun Society in a story of Catholic lawyers who fought against pornography and contraceptives. Were the actions of those Catholics good because of what they accomplished? In Christian theology, the answer must be “no,” although the goodness of their actions is evidence of having a good heart, which is the necessary and sole grounds for Christian moral judgment. You are not saved by works, but sola fide: by faith alone. Goodness is a product of the heart, and not the body: even the most ardent defender of the book of James must acknowledge this. Only outside of Christianity can we appreciate the body and the world as well as the spirit, rather than the dualistic self-denial advocated by Sun Society: “Those adhering to orthodoxy believe that our potential is only reached through self-denial, humility, and prayer, in effort to remain close to the spiritual logos.”
As previously stated, the Christian God is a jealous God, and there is no room for serving multiple masters. There is but one God, and nothing—nothing—else matters.
By contrast, and contrary to Christian incredulity, the non-Christian is able to appreciate and pursue spiritual values too, without any need to ground every concern in one spirit to the exclusion of all others. There is a very long history of this.
It is worth mentioning here that Orthodox and Catholic traditions are not exceptions to this monomania. Rather, their traditionalist attraction lies precisely in their integrity on this point. They say what other, more moderate, more liberal, more modern Christian sects will not say, but there is a non-moderate, non-liberal, non-modern reason why they do not wish to say it. We all know that prayer is important, but it is not everything, and continuous prayer is not holiness, but closer to a kind of induced Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That such a spirituality can hold an attraction for modern adolescents speaks more to the deep lack of integrity and sincerity in the modern age than it does to the truth and beauty of Christianity.
Thomas Nagel’s essay on Moral Luck concludes with a meditation on the challenge of passing moral judgments on people, who are both objects and something more than mere objects, and on actions, which are events but also more morally significant than mere events. We are different people in different contexts, and we are different people to different people: I am not the same man to my mother as I am to my wife or to my daughter, as a function of a son, a husband, and a father not being identical roles. It is this tension that makes moral philosophy difficult, and which makes any systemic attempt to generate solutions—like deontology or utilitarianism—to feel supremely unhelpful in the real world. This is the problem with Christianity, and perhaps with all forms of literalist monotheism. With only one God, we lose the subtlety and interplay of the various roles we inhabit that harmonize to constitute our identity. The conflicts, negotiations, tragedies, comedies, and triumphs of navigating the difficult waters of life and their various spirits—in politics and in our personal lives—are lost in the single, monotonous note of Christianity. It is the one answer to all questions.
That the answer is not “yes to life” but “nothing matters without God” is not even the worst aspect of this monotony however. What is worse is its ultimate effect on the inquiring mind. A supreme answer to everything—an ultimate moral judgment generator and answer book to every problem—is corrosive to the individual spirit, which is to say, spiritedness; perhaps to “self”-actualization itself. We are taught that without God, we are nothing, can do nothing, and yet he can do everything for us:
I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
Sun Society is rather dismissive of the New Atheists, who are often rightly criticized for being too dismissive of religion. But not all of their arguments are superficial, and Christopher Hitchens’ closing remarks in his debate with William Dembski are worth quoting at length:
. . . when Socrates was sentenced to death for his philosophical investigations, and for blasphemy for challenging the gods of the city — and he accepted his death — he did say, well, if we are lucky, perhaps I’ll be able to hold conversation with other great thinkers and philosophers and doubters too. In other words the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true could always go on.
Why is that important, why would I like to do that? Because that’s the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die, I don’t know. But I do know that that’s the conversation I want to have while I’m still alive. Which means that to me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet; that I haven’t understood enough; that I can’t know enough; that I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And I’d urge you to look at . . . those people who tell you, at your age, that you’re dead till you believe as they do — what a terrible thing to be telling to children! And that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority — don’t think of that as a gift. Think of it as a poisoned chalice. Push it aside however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.
The problem with Christianity is not in the insincerity and hypocrisy of its practitioners, nor is it in the esoteric details that distinguish one branch of Christianity from another. The problem lies in the very heart of the theology that is shared by all branches: that there is only one God who gives meaning and purpose and sustenance, without whom there is nothing, and with whom you can have eternal zoe life if you simply submit. It requires the Christian, like Abraham, to be willing to sacrifice his own offspring, his nation, his very self and identity, on the altar of the one God, and with it, all disagreement, complexity, honor, self-respect, and the last residual embers of thumos behind the eyes of once-spirited people.
This is not to say that the eyes go blank. Authentic Christians do have spirit, but it is not their own—it is at the very least less their own, or should be, by admission of their own prayers to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and to serve God’s will, not their own. Aquinas said that true contemplative prayer is finding the place in ourselves where we are, in the present moment, actively being created in the imago dei—the image of God. This is spirit of a kind, but it is not the human spirit.
An authentic human identity is simultaneously more complicated and more knowable than this vision of submission and acceptance implies. It entails multiple overlapping and sometimes conflicting duties and loyalties, and the great stories of mythology outside the Abrahamic tradition—those of Homer, of Virgil, of Northern Europe, and of Mesopotamia—are stories about these conflicts, which have no “solution,” no final answer or absolute truth. Christianity is not like this. Its singular focus on one God is the solution, and this approach is incongruent with the very human nature we were created with. Instead of the many that we see in the world, Christianity offers one: one beginning, one identity, one people, one history, one ending, one God.
I believe that recent events have demonstrated that the individual, the family, the city, the nation, the race, and even the species are all valuable components of our identities, as are their secondary, instrumental roles. None of these are absolute, but all have a portion of our heart and our identity. Neglect of any one of these to the exclusion of another can be crippling, but Christianity requires us to forsake all of them as false Gods. It may still, through all of this, be true—there may really be a God of the Jews who reigns in heaven, who will end history someday and who will take care of your life for you if you only give up on your own merits and turn the reins over to him. But if it is true, then the claims of identitarianism are false, and ultimately, neither race, nor nation, nor family, nor even the self, matter.
I will leave it to the reader to determine which one he or she believes more likely.