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Cosmopolitanism with Real Roots

Spring 2008 - Vol. 50, No. 2

R. R. RENO is Professor of Theology at CreightonUniversity. He is the author of In the Ruins of theChurch (2002) and Redemptive Change: Atonement andthe Christian Cure of the Soul (2002). He received hisdoctorate from Yale University.

Adam Webb has the right enemies. Heworries that elite culture is in the gripsof a cosmopolitan sentiment that makes waron tradition. We are increasingly dominatedby atomistic universalists (to use his tellingtwist on C. B. Macpherson's original term,atomistic individualism). They see particularreligious and national loyalties as dangeroustemptations to fanaticism. Against the fervorof faith, they endorse the cooling effects ofcritique. In place of the strong forces ofdevotion to family, clan, nation, and God,passions that have long glued men and womentogether into communities of common purpose,they wish to substitute impartial internationalinstitutions, the bloodless machineryof law, and the calm governance of experts.It is, as Webb sees, a post-cultural, even anticulturalideal: a globe governed by aderacinated elite able to manage without thebaggage of commitment. The all-seeing eyeof reason—or the unbridled id of desire andexperience lapping up "difference"—willrule.

By and large, Webb is not concerned toexpand our understanding of atomistic universalismand the post-cultural personality,though he certainly catalogues its depravityand threat. Instead, his most important contributionis to point out an important weaknessin conservative criticisms of liberalmodernity. Defenders of tradition ignoreone of the main strengths of the modern,anti-traditional project: its ability to projectitself into the role of global manager andpeace-keeper. To counter this unchallengedclaim, Webb seeks to outline a conservativecosmopolitanism, what he calls a substantiveuniversalism that can compete with the atomisticuniversalism of liberal modernity.

It is not entirely true, as Webb suggests,that those who have resisted whiggish analysisof human conflict and the conditions forpeace have failed to articulate an alternativecosmopolitan ideal. Alasdair MacIntyre showshow traditional forms of Western intellectuallife respect others by actually offering themarguments rather than smiling and smotheringthem with critique. Erich Auerbachoutlined a mysticism of particularity that heimagined gains in human generosity preciselyas it abandons itself to the givenness ofhuman life. Nonetheless, it is largely true thatthe old, high-modernist, cosmopolitan critique of liberal modernity (Webb mentionsT. S. Eliot and José Ortega y Gasset) has"fallen mute." Who these days reads F. H.Bradley's (whom Webb should have mentioned)devastating critique of abstraction inpublic philosophy, Ethical Studies? For thatmatter, who even knows about Samuel TaylorColeridge's On the Constitution of Churchand State, which depicts a society as vigorouslyrooted as it is dynamic and open? So,yes, I think Webb has put his finger on a realproblem. Defenders of tradition can be quitearticulate about the shallowness of our new,post-cultural liberalism, but they have yet tofind a compelling way to talk about howcommitment can unify rather than divide theworld.

Webb's own attempt to fill this void,however, leaves much to be desired. Hisheroes are the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius,the Islamic philosopher al-Farabi, and theJesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci.On Webb's reading, these figures "bridgeddifferences not by bracketing them, but bytranslating across them." They recognizedthe necessity of concrete traditions for theinstruction of the masses, but in their ownthought they pushed upward "to the higherlayer of truth that transcends civilizations."They were not disloyal to their own cultures;instead, they had the capacity to see thekernel of universal truth in the husk ofcultural particularity. These heroic figuresexemplify the virtues of what Webb calls"the old-style humanistic intelligentsia." Thatelite was both committed enough to a particularculture to reinforce its basic patternsof thought and action, but broad-mindedenough to ride softly over specific doctrinesand norms when it was time to discuss higher,more universal truths.

The view endorsed by Webb has a longand inauspicious history in Christian theology.For the first centuries, the recalcitrantparticularity of the Old Testament and thehistorical Jesus grated against the spiritualizeduniversalism of finer minds. Marciontossed out the offending texts, but otherssaved appearances by placing the history ofIsrael and the Jewish Jesus into a largerpedagogical scheme. For Gnostics the pedagogywas metaphysical. Lower, cruder, andparticular forms of testimony and religiouspractice press us forward, they reasoned(with exemplary cosmopolitan sensibilities)to higher, more sublime levels of participationin the cosmic One. In the early modernperiod, this pedagogical scheme shifted froma metaphysical to an historical plane. In TheEducation of the Human Race, Lessing treatedthe specific doctrines and teachings of historicalreligions as provided by God to guidehumanity in its infancy and childhood towarda mature "gospel of reason."

Lessing contributed to the revolution inhistorical consciousness in the late eighteenthand early nineteenth century. Herder andHegel, for example, saw that the concretenessof our historical identities was preciselythe medium in which we found and expressedour universal humanity. Later figuressuch as von Ranke and Mommsencarried forward the humanistic project ofhistorical scholarship: we meet and realize afuller humanity in and through our immersionin historical particularity. There weremany differences in detail, but the generalpicture remains constant. We get closer tothe truth as we lift ourselves out of thelimitations of our immediate cultural context—but (and this is what makes the nineteenth-century historical rebellion againstthe Enlightenment so important) the drivetoward transcendence emerges out of verydynamism and genius of historical and culturalparticularity itself.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentiethcenturies, Christian thinkers mined this turntoward history very deeply. What waswanted was a so-called modern belief, somethingsufficiently substantial to count as faithand at the same time sufficiently mobile topermit full intellectual and political participationin an increasingly secular Westernculture. If we substitute "cosmopolitan" for"modern," and "global" for "secular," thenwe pretty much have both Webb's problemand his solution well in hand. If we see thathistory and culture mediate universal truths,then we can recognize the crucial need forlocalized, particularized commitments inorder to acquaint the many with these truthsand prepare the few to transcend them. Weneed (to advert to the Hegelian side) theanimating faiths of Gemeinschaft in order toprepare the soul for the higher vocation ofphilosophy.

The problem here is not that Webb isreinventing a well-worn modern solution tomodernity's tendency to undermine culturalloyalty. Instead, I object because it no longerworks, if it ever worked at all. Reading hisaccount, I found myself thinking that it allsounded very familiar. I can hear the dulcet,reassuring tones of the liberal Protestant guruPaul Tillich: "Don't worry my fellow believers,my theory of mediation saves everything."I could feel the impatient universalismof the Catholic modernist George Tyrell:"Why can't those earthbound dogmatists seethat the whole point of it all is divine andspiritual?" Unfortunately for the plausibilityof Webb's proposal, in these early years ofthe twenty-first century, we know that thefollowers of Tillich, Tyrell, and other theologianswho invested in historical mediationhave given us a liberal Christianity thatcurrently plays a very important role informing our atomistic universalists. So, I amafraid that this Christian conservative cannotsign on to Webb's project of taking backthe cosmopolis, at least not as he theorizes itsinner logic. I've seen this Trojan Horsebefore.

Webb's error, I think, is to be found in hiscommitment to a false truism that fails to seethe enduring, powerful role of cultural particularity."History shows," he writes, "thatthose who do not claim the widest horizonsalways lose ground to those who do." ImperialRome encouraged an elite culture thatmoved fluidly across the diverse indigenousbeliefs and practices of their empire. It wasnot liberal in our sense of the word, butRoman cosmopolitanism, embodied inMarcus Aurelius, one of Webb's heroes,made a strong claim to the widest horizon,the broadest experience, and the most comprehensivesensibility. And yet, this articulate,philosophical, self-consciously universalelite culture lost ground—to faith. To besure, ancient Christianity was confident thatit, not Stoicism or Neoplatonism or anyother form of classical cosmopolitanism, possessedthe widest possible horizon: Christ, theAlpha and Omega. But more decisive for thekind of reflection that Webb encourages,Christianity seems to have overtaken classicalcosmopolitanism by thickening, rooting,and intensifying the concrete source of itsuniversal beliefs. In this instance (I couldadduce others), pace Webb, history showsthat deracinated cosmopolitans always loseground to rooted ones.

For this reason, while Webb is very rightto challenge true conservatives to shift fromcriticizing liberalism's rootlessness and towardformulating an alternative, positivevision of a global cooperation, he is not atrustworthy guide. Rooted cosmopolitanshave many resources with which to formulatebasic conditions for human cooperationacross cultural differences—natural law, ordersof creation, human rights, and so forth—and these resources provide the intellectualbasis for any conservative to encourage andparticipate in consensus about finite goods.However, contrary to Webb's vision, thisuniversalism is always peripheral and preliminaryto what matters most. To draw onone of G. K. Chesterton's images, a rootedcosmopolitan plants his flag in a particularplace. The deepest truth is not abstract,fungible, and merely human. The focus ofloyalty and love is concrete. The rootedcosmopolitan is a partisan, a defender andpromoter of the place his flag represents.

Doubtless this brings conflict, for passionateloyalties and loves cross (again, recallingChesterton) like swords. But conflicts of loveare as much a source of intense cross-culturalfellowship as they are of bitterness and enmity.A rooted cosmopolitanism will notpromise the relative peace of violence suppressedand controlled—a promise that liberalmodernity has utterly failed to fulfill—for it knows that the human heart lusts morefor dominion than truth, more for powerthan for righteousness. But against the cool,disengaged, and manipulative ethos of atomisticuniversalism, it can promise to meetothers in the full bloom of their loves and inthe full force of their loyalties. It lets mendraw their swords. I have always thoughtthat taking a man's sword seriously andmeeting his convictions with a forceful vigorof one's own is the essence of cosmopolitanism:respect.

A rooted cosmopolitan is not a lover ofhumanity in abstract, nor does he collectcultures or religions as museum specimens tobe catalogued, preserved, and analyzed. Forthis reason, I do not believe true conservativescan ever give Webb what he wants: "analternative vision of world order." Thepseudo-philanthropy of liberal modernitywill always have the advantage of sweetdreams of reason. However, a rooted cosmopolitancan describe the conditions for atrue philanthropy that neither makes falsepromises of peace nor fantasizes about asupra-cultural order (itself an oxymoron). Adefender of tradition respects actual humanbeings by seeing them and engaging them asmen and women who love and believe withall their hearts, all their minds, and all theirsouls—and he can do so because he knowshimself to be just such a man. Perhaps, then,the motto of the rooted cosmopolitan shouldbe a Johnsonian one: He who cannot loveLondon more than humanity, cannot lovehumanity at all.