One of the West’s greatest shortcomings is its aversion to accurately assessing its own cultural uniqueness and especially the religious sources of that uniqueness. The key to the kind of pluralistic and politically secular polity that the West rightly cherishes is the parallel cultural coexistence of a religious tradition whose faithful are taught to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s and to recognize the dignity of the person and his or her right to follow the voice of conscience.Well, it's one of those aphoristic passages that can suggest an awful lot, as I begin to explore below.
Buddy Larsen's comment provides a good jumping off point:
I think it means we westerners are on the whole selling our culture short.Buddy, in my understanding, which won't be exactly Gil's, we sell ourselves short because our tradition rests on something, sacred and powerful, that we are uncomfortable exploring and valuing (maybe because too much understanding would undermine the unspoken, unagreed things, the uncertainty on which we trade and trust - though when the exchange and trust is eroding anyway, we need to talk about it to renew it, which is my excuse today). The discomfort has to do with the paradox that our liberal openness to pluralism is only long sustainable within certain limits that are not themselves "liberal", in the sense that these limits emerged within one particular tradition, one that made claims to holding a truth superior to other traditions. Liberalism grows from Christ's admonition to separate church and state; but this may mean, for example, that on some fundamental level Islam, or what it can possibly become, will be incompatible with liberalism, or with Christianity, not that I think we have yet to definitively answer this question.
Wonder why? Probably, nice manners. Mercy. The Golden Rule.
Are all of them out of place in the Jungle? We're gonna find out.
We are also uncomfortable with the question of whether, once we have established a liberal state, must we continually return to the religious source from which it emerged to renew the national liberal covenant, or is renewal equally accessible in strictly secular terms (keeping in mind that the secular order, with its fashions and fetishes, rationalizations and commitments, is really just another form of the sacred, not something entirely different from the religious, generallly speaking - but if this is correct, then the question is whether, in downplaying its "religious" sacredness, does the "secular" sacred become a second-rate sacred that is not really up to doing the job that we need our shared sacred signs and things to do, such as giving people a sense of membership, commitment and self-sacrifice to a multi-generational social and familial order, thus creating, in enough people, the resolve for hard things like raising families.)
I think Bailie is saying we cannot renew ourselves as a free and religiously pluralistic society, unless a good number of us continue in the Judeo-Christian faith whose presence helps us all, Christian or not, understand and justify our secular society and avoid falling into what the Pope calls "the dictatorship of relativism" where we get things like the EU bureaucracy trying to deny Christianity is somehow fundamental to European culture, and allowing it no public place, e.g. in schools, and trying to downplay all religions equally.
Why is this a dictatorship? Because it closes off new possibilities, while pretending to do the opposite. We cannot just rationalize and secularize what is of value in our cultural past (e.g. the separation of Christ and Caesar, church and state), and forever hold onto it by just repeating (ritualistically) our rationalizations. Our eventual need for new forms of the sacred, around which new forms of freedom will orbit, cannot emerge that way. This point is certainly open to debate, but this is how I see it.
What happens when we separate church and state and also kick all God talk out of the public domain is create an unstable vacuum in which a nonetheless powerful state and bureaucratic elite, interfering in all aspects of life, swears off all moral or ethical guidance from any substantial or widely shared form of sacrality. At least, they must swear off all that is tainted "religion" and follow only those more abstract "secular" forms of sacrality that we have abstracted from religion but whose religious origins we now downplay and ignore.
The bureaucrats deny themselves a source of fundamental religious cultural renewal, and so rely on expert rationality; but social scientific experts are only good at analyzing and institutionalizing, not at (re)creating human reality, since a new reality relies on many if not all stakeholders, and their good faith in politics, coming together to work through shared events. The secular state and its experts judge and institutionalize, but they don't create, or even often second the creative motions; and so, if lacking the shared faith of a self-ruling democracy, the state becomes increasingly arbitrary, relativistic, dictatorial. In the words of another Catholic writer, Jim Kalb, "Mindless utopianism is ... a direct consequence of the strictly pragmatic, skeptical and critical spirit of modernity when that spirit becomes a dogma, as it must when it becomes sufficiently dominant." (follow the link for the full argument)
I think Bailie's quote is saying it's not enough to value a free market: if you take certain kinds of players out of the market, you can destroy it or irrevocably change what it can do because not all the players know how to renew or reproduce the spirit and personnel needed for leadership in freedom (this is my opinion of today's liberalism which has become a ritualized form of an earlier, once innovative, liberalism and today can seemingly add nothing new - it's lost contact with the creative source - so its narratives are closed, their morals pre-determined, and Iraq is quickly judged "just like" Vietnam, Obama talks like LBJ, Bush policy is McCarthyism, yada yada). Many want to play in the free market, and rightly insist on their rights in doing so, but not everyone knows how to be a market maker and we can't go on forever without new makers when we face things like negative fertility rates and mass non-Western immigration with many angrily calling for a return to traditional, ritual-bound, forms of society.
Freedoms, in new politIcal markets, emerge as a product of shared revelatory events, like those memorialized by religion. For example, the story of the Biblical Abraham taught us to move beyond child sacrifice and so learn, or creatively dwell, in the paradox that God wants us to be both obedient to his will and free (of a social addiction to human sacrifice).
An abstract metaphysics, such as the formulations of the Enlightenment, may help us explain and institutionalize the freedom that emerges in such religious events, but it cannot create freedom or renew events simply by flooding the world with rational arguments. Renewal happens in real time. It takes shared acts of faith forged in events/crises - where we only really know the beginnings, the initial compacts created to avoid an impending crisis, not exactly how this new market in a shared God and/or nation talk that we are creating with a pact is going to play out. And these compacts need to be motivated by something other than a strict liberal vacuum. When an established political or social order erodes, as all in time do given new political/ethical situations and tensions, you can't simply rely on old abstract formulae to keep things going. As I say, you have to bring people together to find a way to extend your political tradition by finding new possibilities within it. And that means committing together to some sign of what is now sacred to the political community. For example, today in America we are in a post-9/11 period in which the old elites and the New York Times aren't going to be able to negotiate and define reality as its proper representatives. The present ethical crisis, in which all the old "realism" is breaking down under force of events (no established account of political realism has sufficient grip on the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism), will only be satisfactorily deferred by some new kind of political compact among a broader network of stakeholders who will eventually line up against whatever shared enemies cannot be included in the compact to promote a greater freedom or exchange in the interacting national and international systems. (Or, the present nation or international order will break up.)
Intellectually and spiritually this means being able to have an open-ended faith, open to new possibilities, while going back to fundamentals to remember what has allowed for new possibilities in the past, e.g., that keeping church and state separate works but only when people remain motivated by a personal faith that allows them to keep publicly active and also remain privately, spiritually strong (patiently awaiting their Creator) so that they are not tempted by secular utopias and may resist the corruption or closure of the state into a form of "mindless utopianism".
Radically new problems cannot be solved strictly by instrumental reason, but only by all parties in the state coming together, out of fear that chaos, civil war, etc., may shortly await them if they don't keep their faith in a shared political space going. This entails much exchange over what we each hold sacred that, among other things, leads people on a shared return to the sacred source or origin of their shared humanity and politics, a return whose goal is both to respect and minimize (or somewhat de-mystify) the social pre-requisites for making a political claim on shared sacred signs and their events/origins. One has to minimize the traditional dressings so that all sincere political players may partake in them and the origin may yet give way to a more complex society built with greater freedoms that allow us to defer the present crisis through a deeper, never fully examined, respect for the inexhaustible source that makes all this humanly possible.
Does all this have to entail Christianity in some good part? Gil Bailie thinks so; I would say, if not Christianity as it exists today, then something like it.
First of all, people need to want freedom and they need a religion that supports them in that. Second, they need at least to be in alliance with a religion that helps us all understand the sacred origins of our politics, and understand it in dogmatically minimal terms that maximize openness to a variety of players. In other words, we need to be at least in alliance with a religion whose history and traditions are not just a closed cult but a way of doing anthropology that we can all find useful. The key claim behind Gil Bailie's work is that Christianity is not just another arbitrary and irrational form of bonding that serves whatever needs religion serves just like other religions do; but rather, Judeo-Christianity is claimed to be a radical historical departure from more primitive forms of sacrificial religion, a departure that has entailed an unveiling of how religion previously worked through sacrificial violence, and that proposes a new faith that is anthropologically more sophisticated and true; indeed, it is claimed to be the faith that, to coin a term, maximally minimizes the difference between God and man - so that one becomes more open to seeing the Godliness in everyone and thus to minimizing the pre-requisites for making political claims (not that all Christians of course are good at performing this understanding of Christianity).
At the same time, one should not over-minimize; one must be at least in alliance with a faith that, while liberating man, keeps man from becoming an arrogant rationalizer who risks corroding the distinction between church and state in some secular will to power. When we forget the Christian origins of the separation of church and state, the "secular" power becomes more arbitrary, dictatorial, and eventually more irrationally sacrificial, and we might call the results neopagan: sex in the city and a victim on every page of the New York Times.
The free person must remain humble, deferring to the one God who is also the God of everyone else, so that all committed to the freedom God gives us may find a way to build and share open-ended, not yet very rationalized, political compacts. Needless to say, one also needs a faith that conveys the will to hold the line against those who would use one's freedoms to undermine the cause of freedom.
To sum up (and I apologize for any needless repetition): a free society depends on a faith in new beginnings being ever possible - people need to be open to conversion and forgiveness; such a faith cannot be entirely abstracted from our religious past and permanently rendered in strictly "secular", rational, language (though we need that language for other things). We need also people coming together and renewing the original religious revelations (not that in doing so they will look exactly like the old religions) that make possible secular political life and revelation, working through new kinds of historical events whose resolution will further human self-understanding and thus ultimately serve, and be served by, the understandings of those religions that are open-ended in some fundamental way. Gil Bailie, as you can see by perusing his great blog, claims Christianity to be such an open "religion".
Others should try to show how their faith compares favorably. Just keep in mind that the competition is to defend the basis for a common politics. If we can't do that, it's eventually war, separation, or death. While most of the time we can safely berate the establishment for not respecting us in our difference, sometimes the establishment does lose its grip, the center cannot hold, and we can no longer afford to be adolescents ranting against authority while knowing that dad will still be in charge and putting meat on the table. Today, argues Bailie, "dad" is losing his hold and we should only criticize his corruption with an eye to finding the renewal of "dad" that can really work, in the present event, at least for a while.