October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
June 4, 2007
The most significant revolutions reset reality so thoroughly that we don’t notice their effects. We see everything through their set of pince-nez without reserve, without realizing that there could be any other set to set on our noses. The Polish poet, essayist, novelist and Nobel Prize-Winner, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), had a thing or two to say about revolutions–from experience. Milosz had a knack for landing smackdab in the thick of the most important intellectual and military revolutions of the 20th Century. During his youth he was caught in the crossfires of the Russian Revolution. In a 1943 letter written to a friend during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw (1939-1945) he recalls:
This is what I would like my future reader to see and comprehend: my first memories of childhood, those long rows of refugees‘ wagons on the crowded roads, the bellowing cattle being prodded along, the red glow of the fires of 1914, revolutionary October in Russia and again the years 1920 on the battlefields.1
The occupation of Warsaw was the most brutal in all of Europe and Milosz’s survival of the War was miraculous. Right after that narrow escape Poland was re-christened “The People’s Republic of Poland,” and henceforth closely monitored by Stalin and his cronies in the Kremlin—some deliverance. After a failed attempt to reconcile himself with the new government by working as a diplomat, Milosz defected to Paris in the fifties. In the cafes of the Left Bank revolutions were constantly brewing, mostly in the minds of communist sympathizers and “engaged” existentialists, both combined in the personality of Sartre, who ruled the intellectual scene with an iron fist worthy of a Stalin. Milosz then moved his family to Berkeley where he taught literature, philosophy and theology at Cal-Berkeley during the pop-revolutions of the sixties and the seventies. He spent the eighties supporting the Solidarity movement in Poland—perhaps the only popular workers’ revolution in history not orchestrated by a political elite. He lived long enough see the Berlin Wall fall. As important as all these movements were, Milosz sees them as mere epiphenomena of a far deeper revolution that lay their foundations, “I see a link between the erosion of religious imagination, of the Christian imagination, and those terrible wars and totalitarian movements of the twentieth century.”2 This devolution of the religious imagination is the most thoroughgoing revolution of the Western mind; we are its its heirs who unknowingly see the world through its clouded lens.
We can trace its two-tiered genealogy with the help of Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind and The Land of Ulro.3 On the whole, The Captive Mind is widely recognized as a sobering analysis of the schizophrenia engendered by totalitarian regimes, and is frequently pigeonholed as a tract of political philosophy. It is that much, but the book’s proper place is restored when it is read in light of the theological meanderings of The Land of Ulro. It is just as irresponsible to treatThe Captive Mind as only a political tract as it is to treat The Land of Ulro as only a theological tract. The political aberrations of “the captive minds” analyzed in the earlier work are a direct result of the theologically “disinherited mind” analyzed by the latter work. These two works, although written thirty years apart, form a hermeneutic diptych, where the theological explorations of the latter work are a development of the political theses of the earlier work; together they explain the all-encompassing, revolutionary implications of the shift in our religious imagination.
The following three key moments best substantiate the explanatory power of combining the theses of The Captive Mind with those of The Land of Ulro: a) Immediately, the first pages of the The Captive Mind’s first chapter list the spiritual sources of the captive mind. These pillars of the analysis, the main causes of the problem discussed, are unambiguously theological in nature. b) Next, the now Classic portrait of the Ketman subjectivity derives its tragically dramatic dimension not from a total subordination to the New Faith, but from being a constant insubordination of the mind, where the New Faith battles with the fragments of the disinherited Judeo-Christian faith. c) Finally, the chapter, “Man: The Enemy of Order,” in The Captive Mind presents the New Faith’s ordering of reality theologically, understanding it as a mock liturgy.
First of all, it is telling that the word “communism” rarely surfaces in The Captive Mind. Right from the start it is almost always replaced by some euphemism. Take for example the author’s introduction: “In 1945 the countries of Eastern Europe were conquered by the New Faith coming from the East” (CM 17). The theologically-tinted euphemism used there, “The New Faith,” recurs on nearly every page of the book. This phrase is appropriate because for the author the groundwork for this “new secular religion” (17) was paved by the metaphysical “emptiness” (25) caused by the destruction of the common Christian imagination of the West. That gradual event left behind a profound sense of “absurdity” (28) and the concomitant need to embrace some system, still sharply felt by us in our present situation, that would hold reality together for all classes of society the way the Christian religion had done in the past. Given that many could not intellectually commit themselves to the old religion, it is not surprising that they opted to at least try to worship the New Faith of political parties (past and present).
The Land of Ulro fills out the picture of the crisis by digging up its roots. Ulro shows how the groundwork for the gradual destruction of the anthropocentric Judeo-Christian picture of world was laid in the 18th Century. This was accomplished by the anti-anthropomorphic mechanistic picture of the world created by modern science–especially by Newton’s physics.4 The new science was initially experienced as liberating, since it brought nature under control and gave hope for something like heaven on earth through technological progress. But, given that everything must fit into the mechanistic world-machine, human beings were disinherited of their privileged place at the center of the universe. They were relegated to being mere specks of dust in the interstellar voids. Milosz captures this schizophrenic condition by borrowing the concept of “the disinherited mind” from Erich Heller. Our post-Enlightenment minds are ontologically “disinherited” because they are, “internally torn, simultaneously convinced that man is a nothing in the hostile universe, and, since this greatly wounds human pride, attributing to man the greatest meaning” (LU 107). Given this analysis, communism, and other political fundamentalisms from the French Revolution on, with their claims of having discovered the rules of history (thereby giving humanity a new sense of place in the universe) become what Eric Voeglin called “ersatz Faiths.”5
Even with that, embracing the new faith was not without its problems, as Milosz‘s analysis of the “Ketman” mentality shows. Many retained their old habits. The term Ketman was borrowed from Gobineau’s book, Religions et Philosophies dans l’Asie Centrale (Religions and Philosophies in Central Asia). A Ketman is a person characterized by an external professesion of belief in a dominant New Faith, while internally assenting to different beliefs (CM 79-84). Milosz’s analysis of the varieties of communist Ketman is not as directly theological as some other parts of the book. This is only natural since The Captive Mind assumes, as was shown earlier in this paper, that all the problems it describes–including the phenomenon of Ketman–presuppose a civilization-wide meltdown of the religious imagination, and hence all our problems are theological to the core. Part of what makes this situation a crisis is that it is not, for the most part, consciously recognized as a crisis. However, “the Metaphysical Ketman,” according to Milosz, is not spared this blissful ignorance. He consciously supports the new regime because “the man beholden to this variety of Ketman considers the epoch in which he lives to be anti-metaphysical, hence, one in which metaphysical faith cannot appear” (99). Toward the end of the Ketman chapter Milosz asks whether all the different Ketman poses are a hidden form of pride. He also hints at a possible “act of faith” that could circumvent the need for Ketman (110).
The Land of Ulro is a theological continuation of The Captive Mind in that it is a testament to religious revolutionaries who refused to become Ketmans beholden to scientism–as opposed to a science which knows its limits, best described in Thomas Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. One should keep in mind that this same scientism helped to pave the way for the emergence and massive acceptance of communism and untethered capitalism. These personal heroes fought against what they saw as mechanistic science’s corrosive effect on the human imagination. All of these thinkers skirted on the edge of heresy. Why? Because it seems that for the most part orthodox theologians missed the boat and wrote as if the world was not totally reoriented by the absolutist claims of scientism. The “acts of faith” of symbolist poet and diplomat Oskar Milosz, poet and visionary William Blake, scientist and religious visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg, worker activist and philosopher Simone Weil, and Poland’s most famous Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz differed wildly from each other in content, however, their intention was the same–to preserve the anthropocentric, Judeo-Christian view of the world. Instead of accepting the Marxist-Hegelian claim that, “in man there is nothing . . . you won’t get anything out of yourself, because there is nothing there,” (109) they embraced the possibility that each individual is a uniquely irreplaceable “creature of God” (110). Milosz describes this state of faith in a highly personal passage from Ulro, claiming, “I feel in myself the current of an immense rhythm, and see in my dreams magically colorful landscapes, I don’t think about death, because whether it happens in a month or in five years, it will only fulfill what was willed for me by God” (LU 247). To see the world like this through the twice-born eyes of the Holy Spirit is truly revolutionary and makes all the difference.
The staying power of such feelings was not lost on the political revolutionaries in Central Europe and the rest of the world. One of Milosz’s most intriguing theological insights in The Captive Mind is his description of what communism borrowed from Christianity, or as Milosz puts it rather more bluntly, “The Party knows, that it itself is a Church” (CM 238). Why is it a church? Because its hierarchical structures appeal to man as homo ritualis, “what the chapel was to the middle ages, the meeting-room is today; it exists in every factory and school, in every office-building.” Like icons or portraits of the saints in a shrine one sees, “portraits of leaders, decked out in red, hang from [the meeting room’s] walls” (238). Very much as in a Christian church, “there are gatherings several times a week with the appropriate kinds of presentations” (238). In other words, it seems that man’s need for worship cannot be eradicated, but it can be redirected toward a communist (and as we now know, capitalist) mock liturgy.
The Land of Urlo is an attempt, against crude scientism and communism, to linguistically recapture the reality-altering sense of liturgy as leitourgia, as a public service. If a weltanschauung is to have liberating power it must be operative in all facets of life, not just during a Sunday morning Mass or a Monday evening ideological indoctrination. What better way to do this than by recovering the sacramental dimension of everyday language? Czeslaw, while discussing his distant uncle Oskar Milosz, points out that before the Enlightenment there was a sacramental dimension to language which is all but lost to modern and, especially, post-modern man:
The concept of symbolism did not yet have the qualities of a clear division between the sign and the defined or undefined content, to which the sign points, rather it was a unified whole (from sym-ballein, to throw together). Zwingli’s much later thesis, that the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist exist onlysymbolically, was impossible then, precisely because that which is symbolic was the most real. (LU 215)
The Land of Ulro reads like a list of hunters for the “most real”–Milosz, Blake, Swedenborg, Weil, and Mickiewicz–who gave their every ounce in constructing intellectual bridges toward authentically sym-bolic language. With them thinking and writing becomes a public service, a vocation, whose ultimate goal is to make all of reality, from low to high and back, cohere through words within the divine economy of the Word. Following Athanasius on the theosis, “God was made man that we might be made God.”6 Only a God who takes up all our mundane acts, who eats, who shits, who sleeps, can save us. Literature, language, can become public only if it strives toward this cosmic liturgical dimension. After all, what is writing that does not save individuals and nations from the idols of the times? The question is, can we be revolutionary enough to pass through post-modernity into a rapproached pre-modernity? That is what we are called to incarnate in our lives, as opposed to theorizing about it. There is no ready made terminus for this journey as Ithaca was for Odysseus. By necessity it has to be a pilgrimage incarnate within our concrete circumstances and communities out of Ur to—God knows where. We shall be known by the symbolic fruits we leave behind after our journeys, fruits that will serve as pathmarks, rather than easily digestible road maps, for others.
1. Milosz, Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-1943, translated by Madeline G. Levine (New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 149.
2. Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, edited by Cynthia L. Haven (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006), 112.
3. The Captive Mind was first published in 1954, translated by Jane Zielonko (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), henceforth cited parenthetically in the text asCM. The Land of Ulro was published in 1977, translated by Louis Iribarne (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984), and cited parenthetically in the text as LU.
4. Stephen Toulmin‘s Cosmopolis, and Gadamer‘s Truth and Method, close in their conclusions to Milosz, can both be mined for more detailed accounts of the scientific revolution and its negative consequences.
5. See Volume V of Voegelin’s Collected Works: Modernity Without Restraint: The Political Religions, The New Science of Politics, and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism.
6. On the Incarnation.
Artur Rosman is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Washington (Seattle) whose work concentrates on modern theology, literature, and philosophy. He is on a two-year creative hiatus in Krakow, Poland, working for the Jozef Tischner Philosophy Institute (http://www.tischner.org.pl/en/index.php), Znak Publishers, and writing an introduction to modern philosophy for Erasmus students.