Don’t let the title of this post throw you off. This is the day when I take off my Catholic Christian hat and return to my undergraduate roots. I’m putting on my philosopher’s hat. Even so, I’m going to make a strong claim that many secularists will take issue with. You see, we can best understand all of the major ideologies of the modern secular world as heresies of the Christian faith. This isn’t a theological claim. It’s a historical claim.
Christian heresies all follow the same general pattern. They either take a general tenant of Christian theology or dogma and overly simplify it or they take a single Christian virtue and elevate it above the others. Take for example the ancient heresies. Arianism, for example, overly simplified the doctrine of the Trinity by claiming that God and Christ were not consubstantial. Gnostic Christianity (distinct from but heavily influenced by the raw gnosticism that predated Christianity) claimed that the material world was fully evil. The claim is far simpler than Christian doctrine that the material world is fallen yet inherently good. Heresy begins as an attempt to simplify, but becomes heresy when it oversimplifies.
Or, as Ross Douthat put it in his most excellent book Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics:
The goal is always progress: a belief system that’s simpler or more reasonable, more authentic or more up-to-date. Yet the results often vindicate the older Christian synthesis. Heresy sets out to be simpler and more appealing and more rational, but it often ends up being more extreme.
The major modern western ideologies have all managed the exact same kinds of oversimplification. In many ways, they are mirror images of each other.
- Socialism and Communism (in all of their forms, and across their whole spectrum) elevates the Christian virtue of charity above all else.
- Libertarianism elevates the Christian virtue of dignity of the individual above all else.
- Environmentalism elevates the Christian teaching that men are the stewards of the Earth above all else.
- Feminism elevates the Christian teaching that women should be respected and well treated above all else.
- Progressivism elevates the Christian virtue of tolerance above all else.
- Capitalism elevates the Christian work ethic above all else.
- Globalism elevates the Christian conception of community above all else.
- Liberalism elevates the Christian concept of equality above all else.
In each and every case, the movements behind the ideologies were historically founded by Christian communities. No other communities could have founded them. The virtues at their base are not to be found in the same ways in other major world religions. Even Judaism, from which Christianity evolved, does not view these virtues in quite the same way. Without that base view there is no intellectual foundation upon which to build these ideologies.
And yet each and every one of these ideologies also warped the Christian virtues upon which they were founded. In the end they have distorted the virtues so badly that it’s difficult for an outsider to even recognize them. Socialism looks like theft. Libertarianism can’t shake the appearance of hedonism. Progressivism morphs into something grotesque and intolerant in its own right. Capitalism looks for all the world like raw greed. In the end, oversimplification brings all of these ideologies to their knees.
Yet the virtues they are founded on are good virtues. We should care about them – and most of us do, even if we call ourselves “secular” instead of “Christian.” We fail only when we forget that all of the other virtues are also, well, virtuous.
It is time to put my Catholic Christian hat back on. We fail because we have turned to heresies in the modern age. We would be far better served if we returned to the source.
- Christian Forgiveness
- The Power of Forgiveness
- What Is Superversive Fiction?
- Trump is a Cult of Personality – and So is Evangelicalism
- “Catholicism” series – Episode 1