By Chantal Delsol
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.
Christianity was the instigator and guide of Western civilization, the mores and laws of which it ruled for sixteen centuries: this civilization is called Christendom. This era ended in the second half of the twentieth century. There is no doubt that the end of Christendom will bring about a metamorphosis in the West that it had nurtured.
What are the first symptoms? The reversal of mores, what we can call the normative inversion. Since the second half of the twentieth century and, significantly, since the sixties, our moral hierarchies have literally been reversed. Concerning individual behavior and social acts, in a few years evils have become goods and vice versa, the old hated behaviors are now praised, and the old that we admired are challenged and changed.
In the world of our fathers, colonization was generous and admirable, torture and war last resorts; today colonization and torture are virtually satanic acts, and very largely, war is, too. Homosexuality was banned and despised, and today it is not only justified, but praised. Abortion, previously criminalized, has been legitimized and counseled. Divorce, not long ago impossible, then difficult, no longer meets any obstacle. Suicide was frowned upon (suicides were not offered a religious funeral); it is now considered as a possible benefit, and the laws in some countries may help make it happen.
This primarily explains the normative reversal we are experiencing today–as Jean-François Lyotard wrote: “The postmodern man no longer believes in it.” And we do not see why we should impose demanding moral laws if we no longer believe in fidelity, family stability, or the status of a person from the embryo, etc. However, as I will say later, this does not mean we are at the reign of total license: rather, it means that the old beliefs have been replaced by new ones.
It will be understood that a normative inversion, especially of this magnitude, rests on the basis of a philosophical inversion. It would be better to say an ontological inversion, in the classic sense of the science of first principles. Which is quite natural: we do not upset the whole of morality in this way on a simple whim—we do it because the foundations on which the old morality rested have been dethroned and supplanted.
Each culture or civilization poses, at an original and decisive moment in its history, primordial ontological choices on which everything else is built and supported—morals and mores, laws and customs. For Christendom, this decisive moment was the time of the first councils, which established the outlines of the first truths on which sixteen centuries of Christian civilization would live: God, the person, the moral. These councils, founders of the philosophical base on which everything was to be built, were not, or not only in any case, a seraphic assembly, flown over by the Holy Spirit.
At first it was a cenacle of bishops fighting and arguing, using verbal and physical violence. The ontological choices never fall from the firmament: they are human decisions, commitments contracted together, and which determine the continuation of the centuries. At this precise moment, contractors are confident that these choices meet the deep demands of human nature, and each of these choices is seen as a primary necessity.
But there comes a day, much later, when faith in first principles breaks down. As far as we are concerned, we are now living at a breaking point where the primordial ontological choices—concerning the meaning and place of man in the universe, the nature of the world or of the gods—are overturned.
All peoples are naturally polytheists, or cosmotheists: what we generally call “paganism” designates these original religions that sanctify the natural elements. Until Moses, the Hebrews were cosmotheists—the divine was found there in the entire cosmos, through many immanent gods. The Mosaic revolution has this specific and definitive characteristic: it distinguishes God from the world. Or, if you prefer, it establishes a world separate from a now unique God. With Moses, with the transition from polytheism to monotheism, the history of religions takes a decisive step.
Monotheisms or “secondary religions” are not natural: they appeal to notions of revelation, faith, inner wisdom and, as such, they are constructions and always require to be reaffirmed, maintained by constant efforts. While cosmotheisms or polytheisms, called “primary religions” by the sociology of religions, are natural and obvious: primary religion arises, so to speak, on its own, proliferates without fertilizer, and instantly occupies or re-occupies the place as soon as it is free. This is what is happening to us today.
Cosmotheism has never really disappeared from the scene in Western societies shaped by monotheism. Many figures or authors are inspired by it to varying degrees: alchemy, the cabal, Spinoza, freemasonry, Lessing, German romanticism, Goethe, Freud, Nazism, the New Age…. We can be sure that cosmotheism remains there, asleep and always reappearing as soon as the secondary religion that replaced it shows signs of weakness. In his famous 1917 lecture “Science as a Vocation,” Max Weber described how monotheism dethroned polytheism in the name of universal reason. And how polytheism remains, ousted but lurking, awaiting its revenge. And how finally in our time “the multitude of ancient gods come out of their graves, in the form of impersonal powers because they are disenchanted, and they strive again to bring our life back into their power while resuming their eternal struggles.”
The magnitude of the “Quarrel over pantheism” at the start of the nineteenth century already reflected the painful questions that arose about the Enlightenment’s abandonment of traditional religion. Heine writes “pantheism is the hidden religion of Germany.” Asiatic pantheism fascinated minds weary of dry reason in the nineteenth century, and Schopenhauer said he was convinced that Indian wisdom was the future of Europe. This is what is happening to us today.
Christians have long believed, and many still believe, that they could only be replaced by atheism, nihilism, or both. In other words, by negative forms that would sow darkness and storm. Which is a way of believing yourself to be irreplaceable. Believe or make believe that if Christianity collapses, everything collapses with it: it is nonsense. What replaces the hitherto monopolistic monotheism in the West is polytheism, or cosmotheism. This replacement does not take place by a simple indifference to the old forms, which would gradually be covered by new forms. No: the old forms are “deconstructed,” in other words voluntarily delegitimized, crushed, ostracized. They are no longer “tolerated,” and besides, tolerance itself is no longer accepted, since it presupposes the idea of truth.
In contemporary times and since the twentieth century, the influence of Asian thoughts has been decisive among Westerners. Lévi-Strauss, on the subject of Buddhist respect for all living beings, calls for imitation. The Western world is dualistic: immanence and transcendence, God and man, soul and body, faith and reason, man and animal, etc. Today everything calls for leaving dualism and for following a monistic anthropology, closer to Asian anthropologies, to reconcile opposites. There are countless converging examples.
Everything points to an influence of Asia on the West. Certainly, the disaffection with Catholicism, after almost two millennia, causes an unbearable vacancy which seeks to be filled by new beliefs—it is human. But even more: Asian religious offerings correspond to contemporary aspirations. They are not attached to the notion of truth, hence their syncretism that responds to the desire for “inclusion,” so important today among Westerners. They attach an essential value to nature and to all living things, which is an essential condition for adherence to ecology. They brandish no god, no dogma, no obligation. The devotee comes in to take what he wants and leave the rest. The effort to eliminate suffering resembles personal development sessions, and this is exactly what our contemporaries seek in the religions that are popular after the end of Christendom. There is certainly a contradiction between the impermanence of the ego and personal development, but the new adepts do not seek so far, they seek a practice more than a theory.
Tocqueville, in a short chapter of Democracy in America, prophesied that pantheism would be the religion of future democracy (for it is the only religion that completely equalizes all beings). Here again he was a prophet.
At the start of the twenty-first century, the most established and most promising philosophical current is a form of cosmotheism linked to the defense of nature. We can also speak of pantheism or polytheism. Our Western contemporaries no longer believe in a beyond or in a transcendence. And if they imagine another world to someday live in, it is the distant planets that you would reach by supersonic rocket. The meaning of life must therefore be found in this life itself, and not above it, where there is nothing. The sacred is found here: in landscapes, in natural life, and in humans themselves.
At the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we have changed the paradigm by making a new choice of understanding the world. More profoundly than the normative inversion (that of mores), an ontological inversion has taken place. We can speak of new ontological preferences and the emergence in the West of new paradigms, which come close to old animism. For today’s ecologism, there is no longer any essential separation between man and other living beings, nor between man and all of nature, which he simply inhabits, without dominating it with any superiority. Paganism responds to the concerns of ecology. This is called post-humanism: a general, all-inclusive holism (the opposite of ancient and classical humanism, where man is the king of the universe).
Under monotheism, man feels a stranger in this immanent world and longs for the other world—this is, for example, Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity. Under cosmotheism, man feels at home in the world, which represents the only reality and which contains both the sacred and the profane. For the monotheist, this world is just a temporary stay. For the cosmotheist, it is a home.
But the postmodern spirit is tired of living in such a stay! He needs a home of his own, complete in its meanings. He becomes a cosmotheist again because he wants to reintegrate this world as a full citizen, and no longer as this “domiciled foreigner,” this Christian described by the anonymous in the Letter to Diognetus. He now wants to be at ease in the immanent world of which he is an integral part, without having to dream or hope for another world, which leaves him separate from himself. He wants to live in a self-sufficient world that contains its meaning within itself—in other words: an enchanted world, the enchantment of which lies within and not in an agonizing and hypothetical hereafter.
The postmodern man wants to do away with distinctions. His favorite adjective is “inclusive.” And cosmotheism suits him because it erases the old dualism characteristic of Judeo-Christianity. He demands to escape the contradictions between the false and the true, between God and the world, between faith and reason… Instead of exiling God out of the world, he calls him back here and reclaims the sacred. The return to polytheism is described as an emancipation from exclusive truth, full freedom given to the reign of narratives (the return to myths in place of truth), and the end of the eschatology of salvation (the end of arrow time and the return to cyclic time).
Thus, cosmotheism would be part of the current end of this historical process: there would have been the reign of God, then the reign of man, finally the reign of nature. But this term is at the same time a return to the origin: because before the reign of God, there was, already, the reign of nature.
Ecology today is a religion, a belief. “Belief”: not that the current ecological problem should not be considered as scientifically proven; but because these scientific certainties about climate and ecology produce irrational convictions and certainties, in reality religious beliefs, backed by all manifestations of religion. Today, ecology has become a liturgy: it is impossible to omit the question, one way or another, in any speech or fragment of speech. It is a catechism: it is taught to children from kindergarten and repeatedly, to help them acquire good habits of thinking and acting. It is a consensual dogma—whoever asks questions about it, whoever dispels the slightest doubt, is considered mad or evil. But above all, and this is the clear sign of a vigorous belief and certainly not of a rational science: the passion for nature makes us accept all that was challenged by almighty individualism—personal responsibility, debt imposed on descendants, duties towards the community. It is therefore in the name of this immanent religion that we are reintegrating all the essential dimensions of existence, which previously were taken into account and cultivated by Christianity.
We have a whole Christian tradition of defending nature, from Saint Francis of Assisi or Saint Hildegard of Bingen to, today, Gustave Thibon. Nature was then considered a divine creation and protected as such. The defense of nature was rooted in faith in transcendence and in a humanism that placed man at the center. We then spoke of the environment, and nature could not be deified, since the divine was elsewhere. As Christendom has faded away, and transcendence with it, it is inevitable that the sacred will resurface in one form or another. It should be remembered that the sacralization of nature constitutes the most primitive and rudimentary religious base, the one that comes, so to speak, on its own, and in any human society.
While the defense of the environment becomes an urgent and obvious duty, nature is then sacred—that is to say, set aside, established above, made inviolable. The new ecological religion is a form of postmodern pantheism. Nature becomes the object of a cult, more or less proven. Mother-earth becomes a kind of pagan goddess, and not only among indigenous Bolivians, but among Westerners as well. So much so that Pope Francis speaks today of “our mother the earth,” in a Christian sense of course, but leaving open the ambiguity that allows the link with contemporary beliefs. Our contemporaries defend in all its forms nature distorted by man, but also they embrace trees.
However, we should not believe that a whole new era is dawning: there is no tabula rasa, human thought is a succession of extensions. As always happens, new beliefs pick up on old ones and invest them at new expense. Christians in the fourth century had settled in pagan temples with their God and their saints. Today, we see the unfolding of an all-powerful morality directly inherited from the Gospel, but without its foundations, and essentially, without transcendence.
The ideals of charity, equality, and peace become the projects of a now entirely immanent world. The consequences of this sudden fall from heaven to earth are immense. American author Joseph Bottum (using themes from Rauschenbush) has shown that now the “evil” is fanaticism, militarism, and racism; and the “good”: pacifism and internationalism. He concludes that North America is dominated by “a disfigured Protestant morality without transcendence.” One can say that a bastardized Gospel produced the contemporary decolonial current, after having produced communism in the last century. Wokism, by demanding the evangelical virtues without transcendence, can only fall into utopia and fanaticism.
We can call this new morality “humanitarianism” to distinguish it from the previous humanism. Humanism, stricto sensu, refers to a belief that places man at the center, metaphysically and hence morally—of his dignity and responsibility. Western classical thought of Judeo-Christian origin, and the thought of the Enlightenment that follows and radicalizes it, is in this respect typically a humanism—even if the Enlightenment begins to operate this decentering that will oust man from his solar place. This shift is now complete.
We tend to feel a kind of interior jubilation when a contemporary notes that man has fallen from his pedestal after the three revolutions of Galileo (the earth is no longer the center of the world), Darwin (man is no longer at the center of creation), and Freud (man is no longer at the center of himself). The announcement of so-called “narcissistic wounds” expresses a kind of relief, as when one sees an overly arrogant individual finally being humiliated. It is with happiness that our contemporaries abandon this strictly obedient humanism, which perhaps made them ashamed.
From then on, our “humanism” will acquire such a different meaning that we must instead use another word. What drives us now is more like philanthropy, which is about loving humans and cultivating compassion for them. We can speak of a humanitarian belief, a more modern term than philanthropy but with a similar meaning.
Postmodernity has definitely, and with joy, cut ties with the humanist, Judeo-Christian, and modern tradition, that bestows on man a superior dignity and as such a privilege over the rest of creation. It is oriented more, even if it is in a diverse and disorderly way, towards a kind of pantheism that confers on the whole of nature as much dignity as on man. In other words, while humanitarianism occupies all of our thoughts and structures our beliefs, humanism as such is moving away from us. That serious minds can speak of “animal rights” today, shows that we have lost all sense of what “human rights” are. We have reduced their requirement to that of simple philanthropy. This is why the Western vision can now be described as a humanitarian ethos.
This “humanitarianism” was spotted by several authors in the twentieth century: Scheler, Chesterton, Kolnaï among them. It acts through emotion. But it resembles, and sometimes feature for feature, the humanism of the Gospel from which it emerged and which it imitates, or rather plagiarizes.
Western societies today are under the moral hegemony of the principles of solidarity and equality, and the moralizing rhetoric of our elites bears a resemblance to the ecclesiastical sermons of a century ago. The new humanitarianist morality, because it is no longer prescribed or maintained by a religion, itself becomes a religion or at least replaces it.
In the absence of an overhanging religious body, it is the state that plays this role: we have something reminiscent of the “civil religion” of Rousseau and the revolution. It is the social elites who ensure its respect and punish its infringements. Our post-evangelical morality dominates television sets, inhabits our cinematography, governs schools, and imposes itself in families at the risk of punishment. Our governments are the tabernacles of the clericature: we have, like all non-monotheistic or “pagan” societies, a state morality.
We did not lose our sense of right and wrong. On the contrary, the contemporary era has become Manichean, and even abuses the notion of repentance, which it inherited from the communist ideology that in turn inherited it from Christianity. We cannot say, as some do without caution, that postmodernity is relativistic: the positions of good and evil are absolutely clear-cut and radically distinct. There would be a study to be done on the importance and significance of Manichaeism at this time (the Polish philosopher, Josef Tischner, had started this study under communism).
Humanitarianism can be described as a disappointed heir to Judeo-Christian humanism that replaced the sacredness of man with the sacredness of the world (hence radical ecology or veganism); that replaced humanism stricto sensu with philanthropy; that replaced the person with the individual, with all the attendant consequences—substituting personal victimization for personal responsibility; that ousted the monotheistic faith and elected moralizing fervor as religion. Flannery O’Connor had described, already in the middle of the twentieth century, this postmodern character, who after having ousted his religion, made of his morals a religion: “It is the fault of all the pastors, says a personage. You all became so good that you no longer believe in anything.”
Contrary to what one might think at first glance, humanitarianism is not something vague, a frayed remnant of previous beliefs, especially religious beliefs, that have become anemic and scattered to shreds. If this were the case, we should rather study the phenomenon from a sociological point of view, at the same time as we await its end, because what is scattered on a shore always ends up disappearing.
But it is something else: a firm belief and as such dominating, that imposes itself on our societies and aims to impose itself on external cultures by all the means available, with the Good as a banner. Something that bears a strong resemblance to a religion.
Humanism was a culture, which radiated and inspired, always secondary to the religion on which it was founded. Humanitarianism is a religion, and even an ideology, an authoritarian theory that subjects life to its law from above. The negation of transcendence generates an authoritarian perversion: for the precepts of the Gospel are ideals which only have meaning through their attachment to a transcendent world—they do not wait for a total application in this world, they are only inspirers. Contemporary Western societies, which no longer have any idea of transcendence but would like to fully apply the morals inscribed in our heritage, the Christian one, come to aspire to a purity that does not exist on this earth. The principles of evangelical morality are not intended for immediate and total application: the Catholic Inquisition, the first historical totalitarianism, was a perversion of Evangelical Good claiming to accomplish an immediate accounting on earth. Contemporary humanitarian morality is established, by its intrinsic nature, in this same inquisitive spirit.
That a morality remains, stemming from the now largely erased religion, is not very surprising. No society can do without a morality, and it is logical that in the absence of the disappearing Christian faith, its morality remains to us as a kind of tradition, although henceforth dressed in modern clothes and adapted to the tastes of the day.
But this morality becomes sacred. Perhaps a desire for absolute good comes to compensate for the loss of the God of monotheisms. Aurel Kolnaï saw in this wave of “hyper-moralism” a correspondence with the decline of the religious spirit: the search for temporal perfection replaces the lost faith—fervor changes place. It seems, Kolnaï said, that periods of hypermoralism, of puritanism, followed in history the fall of religions. Hypermoralism wants perfection and formalism, much more than the religious spirit proper, or at least on par with the religious spirit in its most sectarian phases.
The bottom line is that the virtues, orphaned from their sacred and unshakeable foundations, become sacred in place of foundations, and thereby acquire their intransigence. Henceforth, this is how the Western universal describes itself: a plenipotentiary morality alone in the world.
The post-modern West is a cosmotheistic ontology inhabited by distorted Christian morality. All the texts of post-humanism tell us what we are going to lose with the loss of transcendence: the notion of truth and the universalism that accompanies it; the idea of progress and the arrow of time; the sacredness of the person and the singularity of the subject. It would be another chapter.
Chantal Delsol is a leading French political philosopher. She is the author of Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World and The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century: An Essay on Late Modernity. This essay, which was delivered to a conference hosted by the Abigail Adams Institute, First Things, and the Zephyr Institute in January 2022, summarizes themes found in her most recent book, La Fin de la Chrétienté (The End of the Christian World).
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