By Nathan Pinkoski
This essay is part of a symposium on the thought of French political thinker Chantal Delsol in light of her latest book, La fin de la Chrétienté or The End of the Christian World.
In La fin de la Chrétienté, Chantal Delsol describes the reality that we all see, but offers a distinct and provocative explanation of it. The last decades of the twentieth century have witnessed a massive transformation in Western values, including the rejection of Christian anthropology and ethics. Describing this well-documented phenomenon as a “normative inversion”, Delsol argues that it is dependent on a philosophical transformation, an “ontological inversion.” The West’s basic “ontological choices,” which concern “the meaning and place of man in the universe, the nature of the world,” now rest on what she calls “cosmotheism”: the sanctification of the entire cosmos. God is immanentized, a part of the world rather than separate from it. This is pagan ontology. The West is reverting to paganism. The end of Christendom and the return of paganism is “what is happening to us today.”
Delsol’s thesis is ambitious, but it is also ambiguous. Delsol’s vision of the pagan West extends beyond a philosophical outlook. It suggests the resurgence of the old pagan religion, or the importation of Eastern mysticism into the West. On one level, Delsol’s “cosmotheism” seems exactly right. For example, the ascent of the ecology movement and the way it speaks about the environment denote a process of re-sanctification of the earth. Correspondingly, the human person becomes less significant, even a problem. For the ecology movement’s greatest enthusiasts, human beings are pests who destroy and desecrate the earth. Yet, absent the gods who enchanted the classical world and the social order in which the gods took their place, the specific content of this new pagan creed clearly does not resemble the old. Westerners do not copy Eastern mysticism but invent pseudo-Eastern spiritualities that reinforce rather than challenge their own culture of narcissism. In the absence of the essential creedal and social characteristics of classical or eastern paganism, it is unclear whether the phenomenon Delsol describes deserves to be called “pagan.” As I shall argue, this ambiguity arises in large part because Delsol’s pagan thesis receives its bearings from those who are describing a post-Christian, not a pagan, world. Caught between post-Christian sources and her own more radical observations about a pagan trajectory, she is unsure which strand shall ultimately guide her.
Let us first examine the “normative inversion.” Since at least Le souci contemporain (Icarus Fallen), Delsol’s strength has been her capacity to discern the moral energy and zeal of late modernity, its revolutionary moralism. In La fin de la Chrétienté, she updates her earlier reflections on late modernity’s moralism to address its most fervent 21st century sect, “wokeism.” But this moralism is not equivalent to paganism; Delsol’s own characterization of it suggests otherwise. Drawing from Joseph Bottum’s book An Anxious Age, Delsol describes wokeism as a “bastardized Gospel.” As Delsol’s language indicates and as Bottum argues at length, this moralism is post-Christian, or more specifically, post-Protestant. For Bottum, the collapse of mainline Protestantism is the key social and religious event of the late 20th century. In less than sixty years, mainline Protestant churches went from counting about half of all Americans as members to counting fewer than ten percent. Yet mainstream Protestantism did not die, even if church membership did. Instead of producing a secular, irreligious age, the concepts of mainline Protestantism were transplanted into social and political life, where they received new energy. The old Social Gospel turned into a new political theological movement.
This post-Protestantism does not wage war on personal sins, as the original form of Protestantism did. Instead, it wages war on social or political sins. Redemption is not found through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but through having politically correct opinions. As this program becomes frenetic, it defines more and more of American and Western life.
On closer inspection, it would appear that post-Christian and post-Protestant ideas, rather than pagan ones, account for an essential feature of the modern ecological movement. For while the ecological movement does have a non-Christian cosmology, the sense of urgent crisis that pervades it (for example, to only permit references to “climate change” as “the climate emergency”) suggests an imminent apocalypse. This eschatological thinking is unfamiliar to paganism but familiar to Christianity. Since this post-Christian eschatology provides the urgency and orientation to the ecological movement, it is particularly important for understanding the movement itself. Ultimately, Bottum thinks the ascent of apocalyptic, eschatological thinking in late modernity confirms René Girard’s theses on the acceleration of mimetic rivalry brought about by a perverse intensification of Christian theses. In pointing toward Bottum and Girard, Delsol’s pagan thesis is in tension with itself, because it reinforces their post-Christian assessment of late modernity.
Another path in Delsol’s thinking might provide a stronger basis for the claim of a reversion to paganism because she appeals to the guidance of the “prophet” of a pagan trend, Alexis de Tocqueville. But what she describes as pagan does not align with what Tocqueville calls paganism. Tocqueville does not describe what he prophesizes as “paganism.” He calls it “pantheism.” To the extent that this prophet of the late modern world foretells paganism, he foretells a philosophical pantheism which is an aspect of a larger phenomenon, the march of equality. In times of equality, Tocqueville argues, one is attracted to philosophical positions that emphasize homogeneity rather than heterogeneity. For this reason, pantheism becomes commonplace:
As conditions become more equal and each man in particular becomes more similar to all the others, weaker and smaller, you get used to no longer envisaging citizens in order to consider only the people; you forget individuals in order to think only about the species.
At first sight, Delsol’s pagan thesis is on firm Tocquevillian ground when she describes the emergence of an ethical and ontological world in which the human person is downgraded and disregarded. This is not an accidental outcome. It is what egalitarian and democratic practice entails. Tocqueville writes that “such a system, although it destroys human individuality, or rather because it destroys it, will have secret charms for men who live in democracy.” Nevertheless, this world is not, in Tocqueville’s vocabulary, a “pagan” world.
Tocqueville uses the term “pagan” to describe a non-egalitarian, non-democratic world. For him, paganism is characterized by clear social hierarchies. The most definitive are the contrast between master and slave, which pervaded the ancient world, and the hard but limited despotism of ancient tyranny, where those closest to the tyrant habitually felt the boot of arbitrary rule, but those who kept their distance from the tyrant’s court could live normally. Imperial Rome provides the clearest example of the gap between the ancient and modern world. In an annotation of 7 March 1838, Tocqueville writes that “there was something of the great, of the colossal in the Roman tyranny, of the aristocratic, the magnificent, of the master of slaves, of the barbaric, of the pagan. All things that cannot habitually be found in a civilized and democratic society.” The pagan age is past and the age of hierarchies is past, because democracy has triumphed. Tocqueville believes that Christianity began this process. It inaugurated the march of equality and democracy. Turning back time to a pre-Christian, pre-egalitarian age is not possible. Old forms of despotism will not recur, even if the new forms of despotism, more difficult to identify, will be more insidious. Tocqueville teaches that we must moderate the influence of what Christianity began, keeping equality confined to its proper sphere and preventing it from defining all aspects of human life. The abolition of the Christian idea is neither desirable nor possible, but the acceleration of the Christian idea is to be feared. Once again, in pointing toward Tocqueville, Delsol’s pagan thesis is in tension with itself; it reinforces a post-Christian assessment of late modernity.
Nevertheless, Delsol’s argument cannot be so easily reduced to a description of post-Christianity and written off as such. There is a novel, radical strand in it that deserves notice because of the range of possibilities it implies. Unlike Tocqueville or Girard, Delsol rejects a progressive, unidirectional idea of history. Attached to a Christianized philosophy of history, Tocqueville and Girard assume that conceptual persistence means progressive continuity; we innovate old concepts but cannot abolish them once they have been introduced into history. Delsol denies this. We innovate old concepts, but in a revolutionary manner that gradually destroys their old meaning. The new paganism may speak using concepts such as “dignity,” but these ideas are steadily being evacuated of all prior meaning. Concepts and ideas may nominally persist, but they are substantially destroyed.
Delsol sees the peak of modernity as pointing toward a repetition of antiquity, albeit with the winners and losers switched. Just as in antiquity Christianity took concepts belonging to the old paganism and changed their meaning so completely that the old pagan meaning was lost, so the new paganism is doing that to Christianity. She affirms, therefore, a cyclical conception of history. Her reference to the loss of the ‘idea of progress’ suggests that progress is not written into time and is not inevitable. It is an idea that we abandon as we become more pagan.
This is the most radical strand of Delsol’s argument because it implies the total abolition of the gentlest aspects of the Christianized civilization that we take for granted. Consider, for example, what it would mean to demonstrate that we are abolishing Tocqueville’s Christianized paradigm. To show the resurgence of paganism on Tocqueville’s terms, we would have to have a world where persons are defined not by membership in “humanity,” but by membership in fixed categories that determine their social status and where they lie in the social order. This world would be hierarchical, and it would therefore not be democratic. To establish whether we are really becoming more pagan, we should have to demonstrate that heterogeneity is replacing homogeneity, that hierarchy is replacing equality, and that we are leaving a democratic regime behind.
While Delsol does not pursue this kind of analysis, there is a case to be made that this is the trajectory of late modern moralism. This moralism regards race, gender, and sexuality as the fundamental characteristics defining each person. Racial and sexual heterogeneity becomes more important than human homogeneity. The new categorizations have social and political consequences; they become the most important employment, legal, and political categories. The more one categorizes persons in those terms, the more one must stress an intersectional hierarchy which requires dispensing with some fundamental principles of juridical equality. So it is today that certain acts are acceptable when committed by those of a higher racial-sexual status. But the restrictions for those lower down, such as white heterosexuals, will be much tighter. We see this trend in criminal justice, contract law, loan forgiveness, and public health. We should not describe it as hypocrisy or inconsistency on the part of egalitarians. We can make a neater conclusion: the power of equality to move the hearts and minds of Western legal and administrative elites is waning. They accept that hierarchies are here to stay. The explicit question is which ones must be dismantled; the implicit question is which ones are justifiable.
The embrace of justified hierarchies goes hand in hand with a transformation in government. The rise of technocracy entails the end of democracy. Technocracy is swallowing democracy because it implies an epistemic authority that the few, not the many, have access to; it must be an epistemic monopoly. Because this monopoly serves as the basis for claims of political legitimacy, it requires a regime where we, presumed to be epistemically incompetent to judge our own cases, must subordinate ourselves to expertise. This transformation in the ruler-ruled dynamic is more radical than Tocqueville’s soft despotism, as the extent of the subordination to the ruler is starker and has greater legitimacy. It does not just represent the erosion of democracy. It is the repudiation of it.
In short, there is a good case to be made that a post-democratic paganism is on the cusp of a great victory. The lamps of democracy are going out all over Europe and the West. Does this mean that “we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”? Or that “there is still time for those to whom freedom and parliamentary government mean something, to consult together”? We do not know the answers to these questions. But we must ask them. Many are attached to a progressive tenet of history that simply assumes it is impossible for the lamps to go out. Consequently, many do not comprehend the revolutionary implications of what they see and do not ask these questions. Delsol’s thesis of a pagan West may have its tensions and hesitations. Yet by breaking with the progressive idea of history, it enables us to raise these questions. For that reason alone, her essay should command our attention.
Nathan Pinkoski is a Research Fellow and Director of Academic Programs at the Zephyr Institute. His writings have appeared in First Things, Perspectives on Political Science, The Review of Politics, and other publications. He holds a BA (Hon) from the University of Alberta and an MPhil and DPhil in Politics: Political Theory, from the University of Oxford. He has held research fellowships and lectureships at Princeton University and the University of Toronto. He recently co-edited Augustine in a Time of Crisis (Palgrave-MacMillan Press).
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