Thursday, January 31, 2013

Moving Beyond the Therapeutic Society

On the 40th anniversary of Freud-scholar Philip Rieff's 1966 classic, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud, Stephen L. Gardner observed: "The rise of democracy and equality, the loss of authority and hierarchical order that has defined the modern world, have produced not just a change in regime but a virtual transformation in human character." Some of the more striking effects of this revolution, he listed were "a corrosion of the distinction between public and private spheres; an 'ethics' of entitlement and victimology; and a popular and consumer culture dedicated to explicit sexuality and to an equally obsessive cult of violence, as if they were twin paradigms of freedom." 
Rieff anticipated much of this 47 years ago - before Facebook, Twitter, and the 24-hour news cycle, before confessional TV and post-modern identity politics, before internet hookup sites, violent video games, and our present epidemic of guns in private hands. 
I first read Rieff's non-nostalgic analysis of the decomposition of Western (and thus Christian) culture as a graduate student in the 1970s (and later graduated to his earlier volume Freud: the Mind of the Moralist). I have been rereading it this week (in the 40th anniversary critical edition published in 2006). The effort (and it is an effort ploughing through Rieff's erudition) has been well worth it.
Rieff understood culture as "a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied." Such a culture survives principally "by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood." Freud famously "emphasized coercion and the renunciation of instinct as indispensable elements in all culture." 
That this is so was the traditional Western understanding, and the role of elites traditionally reflected this understanding. Traditional elites "were predominantly supportive rather than critical of culture as a moral demand system. Admonitions were the expectable predicates of consolations; that is what is meant, nowadays, by 'guilt' culture." The historic function of intellectuals was "to assert the authority of a culture organized in terms of communal purpose." Instead, however, "large numbers of the cultivated and intelligent have identified themselves deliberately" with a rejection of instinctual renunciation, resulting, according to Rieff, in "the most elaborate act of suicide that Western intellectuals have ever staged." Indeed, a culture begins to die "when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves."
And that's obviously been going on now in the West for quite some time. The 40+ years since Rieff wrote have, however, witnessed the widespread popularization of that elite loss of faith. As for elite culture itself, as Rieff predicted emerging elites "are being trained in terminologies that have only the most tenuous relation to any historic culture or its incorporative self-interpretations."
Nowhere has the process of cultural unravelling been more obvious - and, especially in recent decades, more rapid - than in regard to religion itself, western culture's traditional symbol system. To me, having lived through the recent phases of this process of cultural and religious dissolution - and having in a certain sense actively participated in it as an academic and as a religious professional - the question becomes whether and how religion can recover the internal resources and external confidence to undertake a rehabilitation of culture.
By that I certainly do not mean returning to or restoring a world we have lost. If history has taught us anything it has taught us that such reactionary projects are ultimately unsustainable. In any case, the actual benefits to humanity of modernity are simply too many, too real, and too obvious to allow for such a stance to be credible. Few of us have retained our ancestors' capacity for instinctual renunciation, and - to the extent that such renunciaiton is actually less necessary today - that is not altogether a bad thing.
What is problematic, however, is our increasing incapacity to subordinate private satisfaction to any larger common or public purpose. This incapacity permeates all aspects of social life. Rieff rightly recognized modern art as "unpleasant and ugly." The fundamental problem with modern art, however, is its lack of public purpose - existing only as its author's self-expression, created only to be exhibited. Of course, most people are indifferent to modern art - except insofar as it is inflicted upon them by ugly architecture. But the inability to subordinate private satisfaction to any larger common purpose is omnipresent nonetheless. Prescinding from the big political and economic issues that rivet our attention, consider the increasingly universal phenomenon of casual dress, which (whatever else it may suggest) signifies the collapse of the boundary between what is public and important and what is private and trivial. The issue is not discipline per se and instinctual renunciation for its own sake, but recovering a longing for a common purpose and relearning enough self-disicple to pursue any common purpose.
Religion is very much about a common public purpose. Despite its image in this respect, it is only instrumentally about disicpline and renunciation. As Rieff realized, Christian asceticism was positive not negative - "aimed fundamentally at a liberation of the highest powers of personality." Recovering an ability as an individual to prioritize the public and the common - and so salvaging society in the process - is not primarily about maintaining (much less restoring) old prohibitions, but about redirecting moral energy.
Here Christianity has something specific it can contribute. The truly grievous weakness of post-modern, accomodationist Christianity is how it has transformed faith in salvation by and through God's gift of grace into a therapy of unconditional self-acceptance. But, of course, salvation by and through God's grace is an experience not of acceptance but of mercy - God's mercy. Unconditional acceptance takes away the fundamentally human tension of sin and guilt and reduces mercy merely to an incomprehensible instance of vestigial liturgicla language with no real reference int he actual world. Mercy, however, or more precisely the God who is mercy, is at the core of the Christian story, It is our hope in the God of mercy, revealed by the life, death,and resurrection of Jesus, that provides consolation int he face of our moral lapses and failures, making it possible for us to keep on striving in the public realm while making peace with our personal contradicitons in the private realm.

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